07/02/2008 11:00PM

Azul Leon gets more ground in stakes


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Azul Leon was favored in his May 8 debut at Hollywood Park, although 4 1/2 furlongs was considered way too short for the 2-year-old.

"We definitely thought he was quality enough, but at that distance, if he didn't win, it would not have shocked us," trainer Doug O'Neill said. He was right on both counts.

Azul Leon won by a head, just barely, and galloped out strongly past the wire. Azul Leon ran like he wants more distance, and Saturday at Hollywood he gets it when he starts as the likely favorite in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship at six furlongs.

Ten entered the $100,000 Juvenile (race 3); the field is ordinary. Main rivals for Azul Leon include trouble-prone Fassnacht, a three-start maiden; Let'spickupthepace, third in both of his starts and a candidate to alter strategy and try running from off the pace; and speedster Seismometer.

None of the meet's fastest 2-year-olds entered. Proctor winner Backbackbackgone (84 Beyer Speed Figure) disappeared after his stakes win; special-weight winners Smokey Lonesome (80) and Kelly Leak (73) are waiting for Del Mar; S.S. Stone (87) earned the highest Beyer of the meet by a colt, but only last Sunday, and he also will wait for Del Mar.

Meanwhile, Azul Leon is likely to restore the chalky tradition of the Juvenile. Until last year's $17.20 upset by Salute the Sarge, favorites had won 13 of the previous 15; the high payoff in that span was $8.

Cynics will find Azul Leon an easy target. His 69 Beyer is low (Juvenile par the past decade is 92). Furthermore, none of the horses Azul Leon beat have since won (combined 0 for 12), and Azul Leon had a minor setback after his maiden win.

O'Neill said Azul Leon "got a little sick on me," but the timing was ideal, because Azul Leon missed no big races and runs Saturday at a favorable six-furlong distance.

"He's got a tremendous stride and acts like added distance" will benefit, O'Neill said. "His last three works have been really solid."

Rafael Bejarano rides Azul Leon, a son of hot first-crop sire Lion Heart. Lion Heart has had 12 starters through Thursday, including seven that won first out. Another colt by Lion Heart - Lyin' Heart - was scheduled to start as one of the favorites Saturday at Churchill Downs in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor. Joe LaCombe bred and owns Azul Leon.

Others in the Hollywood Juvenile field include the Walther Solis-trained trio of Conclusive, Making Dreams and Turbo Call; Swiss Yodeler-sired winners Jack Flash and Swiss Alpine; and maiden Nochangenweather.