06/05/2007 11:00PM

Banach's big weekend ends in OaksP


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Trainer Darwin Banach will be active on two important fronts this weekend.

On Saturday, he will be at Belmont Park to saddle Sky Conqueror, a 5-year-old who was voted Canada's champion turf horse last year, in the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap, in search of his second straight Grade 1 victory.

Banach, the private trainer for owner and breeder Bill Sorokolit, then will head home and arrive in plenty of time to saddle Palace Pier in Sunday's $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, a 1 1/8-mile race for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies.

Palace Pier won the final two starts of her five-race 2-year-old campaign, graduating at 1 1/16 miles and winning in the Ontario Lassie at the same distance. In the Lassie she defeated Catch the Thrill, who went on to win the Sovereign Award for her division.

After opening up this season with a third-place finish behind Street Sounds in the Grade 2 Beaumont going about seven furlongs at Keeneland, Palace Pier returned home as one of the early favorites for the Woodbine Oaks.

And, despite a disappointing third-place finish as the odds-on choice in the seven-furlong Fury, Palace Pier was still the favorite at just under 5-2 when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles for the Grade 3 Selene.

Racing without blinkers in the Selene for the first time since her debut, Palace Pier was taken off the pace and had no late response, finishing eighth in the field of 12.

Banach is upbeat about Palace Pier's prospects in the Woodbine Oaks, however.

"She's doing fantastic," he said. "Hopefully, we can sneak in under the radar and surprise a few people."

Palace Pier will have the blinkers back on for the Woodbine Oaks, and will have a new rider in Emile Ramsammy.

"We tried to make her rate a little bit last time, and that didn't help her," said Banach. "We'll just kind of let her run her race now instead of trying to make her do what we want."

Native Legend undefeated going in

Banach and Sorokolit will have one of the leading contenders for the $100,000 Alywow, a 6 1/2-furlong overnight turf stakes and one of the Oaks's supporting features at Woodbine on Sunday.

Native Legend is undefeated in three career outings, all at Woodbine, including the six-furlong Star Shoot in her second start as a 3-year-old on April 22.

The Alywow will be Native Legend's first start on grass.

"I think she'll be able to make the switch to turf, no problem," said Banach. "Her whole family is turf-orientated. I don't know why she wouldn't be."

Native Legend's kin include Classic Stamp, a winner of three turf stakes, including back-to-back runnings of the Grade 2 Canadian at Woodbine.

Bold Finish gets stakes try

Bold Finish, coming off an impressive win in a first-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles in his first start of the year, will be making his stakes debut Saturday in the $125,000 Steady Growth.

The Steady Growth, a 1 1/16-mile race for Ontario-sired 3-year-olds and up, attracted a field of seven, led by Soul Rebel, winner of an open allowance at a mile and 70 yards in his only start this season.

Bold Finish, a 5-year-old gelding trained by Phil Gracey, ran third in a $40,000 claimer for nonwinners-of-two last Oct. 8, then caught fire in the closing weeks of the meeting.

After finishing a close second in two straight Ontario-sired first-level allowance races at 1 1/16 miles, Bold Finish broke through that condition on Woodbine's closing day, Dec. 10.

"He'd had a bad virus early in the spring," said Gracey, "and then he had a pus pocket in his foot. He was months getting over that.

"He's a tough horse to get fit. He won't try very hard in the mornings. He finally got good at the end of the year, and the season was over."

Bold Finish spent a couple of months at Gail Wood's nearby Woodlands and returned to the track on Feb. 10.

"After racing late last year, he never really lost much over the winter," said Gracey.

That was evident in Bold Finish's season debut as he stalked the pace before rallying for a convincing 4 1/2-length victory under regular rider Robert Landry on May 12.

"He's been an improved horse anyway, but the Polytrack has helped him, too," said Gracey. "He even liked it last fall, when it was cupping out."

And while Gracey acknowledges that Soul Rebel may take some beating in the Steady Growth, he believes Bold Finish is deserving of the opportunity.

"He's good right now, and you don't get many chances at races like these," he said. "If he runs his race, he should be pretty tough."

Last Answer returns to Polytrack

Last Answer, a 7-year-old gelding and a Sovereign Award finalist in the older male turf division last year, will be making his local season debut in Friday's 1 1/8-mile allowance prep for the July 1 Dominion Day Stakes.

The allowance prep and the 1 1/4-mile Dominion Day will be run on Polytrack, and Last Answer scored his only victory of 2006 when he made his first start on the new surface in an open 1 1/2-mile allowance race.

Last Answer traveled to Keeneland for his first start this year, the Grade 3 Elkhorn at 1 1/2 miles on turf on April 27, but was well beaten under regular rider Ramsammy.

"He got sick down there," said Mike Keogh, who trains Last Answer. "He may have been harboring it at the time. He never settled in at all, and he's [usually] such a quiet horse. I was astounded.

"It took him a long time to recover. The trip took a lot out of him."

'Belmont Zone' giveaway Friday

Jim Mazur and Jim Bannon will host a handicapping seminar at 11oa.m. Saturday on the second floor of the grandstand.

On Friday, customers at Woodbine, Greenwood, the teletheatre locations, and Mohawk will receive a free copy of Mazur's handicapping guide "The Belmont Zone."