06/11/2004 12:00AM

Baker plays the numbers game


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But what about when you have all three, which is trainer Reade Baker's situation heading into Sunday's $500,000 Labatt Woodbine Oaks?

Baker will send out Silver Bird, Hong Kong Dancer, and Touchnow, giving him 60 percent of the five-horse field for the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, which is this country's most prestigious test for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies.

Silver Bird is the known quantity off her solid second-place finish behind Eye of the Sphynx in the May 23 Selene. Lurking in the wings will be Hong Kong Dancer, who is undefeated in two starts against much less testing company, and Touchnow, who is more potential than promise at this point.

The three have different owners and will race as separate betting interests, which would be the case in any event since there are no couplings for stakes in Ontario worth $100,000 or more.

Silver Bird, owned by Jim McAlpine, was among the leaders of her division here at 2, capping her campaign by becoming a stakes winner in the seven-furlong Glorious Song after running second in the 1 1/16-mile Princess Elizabeth.

After spending most of the winter at Adena Springs South, Silver Bird rejoined Baker here and has seen action twice, finishing second to Eye of the Sphynx in both the seven-furlong Fury and the 1 1/16-mile Selene.

Although he is pleased with Silver Bird's progress, Baker acknowledges that he could have done things differently.

"Overall, it's gone good," said Baker. "But obviously I should have stopped on her earlier last year, and then taken her to Palm Meadows or somewhere in the wintertime and got a race into her."

Baker said he had hoped to run Silver Bird in the six-furlong Star Shoot here April 25, but that plan did not materialize.

"When I got her back here and breezed her, she wasn't fit enough to run," said Baker. "It was just a matter of starting too late."

Silver Bird appears to have made up for the lost time, however, and Baker says he is confident she will continue to move forward when she makes the third start of her campaign in the Oaks.

"We weren't quite perfect in the Selene, and I think we will be Sunday," said Baker.

Hong Kong Dancer much improved

Being perfect, indeed, has been the story of Hong Kong Dancer, who is 2 for 2 in her career. But Baker admits that last year Hong Kong Dancer gave little inkling of what was to come, since she was not overly impressive in the mornings.

Baker was still in Florida late this winter when he received a call from his assistant, Barry Lerman.

"He said, 'This filly's really changed; she's leapt forward,' " Baker said.

And that assessment was supported by Hong Kong Dancer's debut, in which she romped by 8 1/4 lengths in a six-furlong maiden/optional claiming race here May 1.

That effort prompted owner Peter Ho to put up $5,000 to supplement Hong Kong Dancer to the Oaks, and she rewarded that faith with an impressive victory in a first-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles here May 22.

"We were running out of time," said Baker. "We got things crammed together. But she's easy to train. She doesn't get nervous or anything like that. She's very light on herself; you don't need to do a lot with her."

That could prove important, since Hong Kong Dancer has not recorded a workout since her latest victory, having missed a scheduled prep last Sunday.

"She pulled a muscle last Friday in her hind end," said Baker. "She's had some massage therapy work since then, and everything's fine. She's galloping every day, and everything looks great."

Baker does not see the Oaks distance as an obstacle for Hong Kong Dancer.

"I think she'll do anything," he said. "I think she'll sprint, and I think she'll go a mile and a half."

Touchnow will be the longest shot on the short Oaks board. She was sixth in her only start at 2, but broke through when facing winners in her second outing this year.

"We had high hopes for her, because she's got a route pedigree," said Baker. "She's very, very well-bred. We always had the Oaks in the back of our minds."

Following her initial win here May 8, which came over seven furlongs, Touchnow stretched out for the first time and finished almost 20 lengths behind Hong Kong Dancer.

"She came back full of mucus," said Baker. "I've got to toss that race. Obviously, I know she's got to jump approximately 25 Beyer points to be competitive here. But she's in great health, and in a small field we're going to give it a shot."

* Francine Villeneuve, the second-leading rider at her home base of Fort Erie, will be at Woodbine on Sunday to accept the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award.

Villeneuve is Canada's all-time leading female jockey, with 787 wins and purses of $12.2 million as of Friday. She is the first woman to be honored with the Gomez Memorial Award.

Awarded annually on Oaks Day, the Gomez Memorial is for a jockey who is Canadian-born, Canadian-raised, or has competed regularly in Canada for at least five years and has made a significant contribution to the sport.

* Jockey David Clark recorded his 2,500th career winner here Friday.