03/08/2006 12:00AM

Barber has the speed to spare

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ALBANY, Calif. - A pair of solid $80,000 optional claimers highlight Friday's Golden Gate Fields card.

Stakes winner Halo Cat and entrymate Jeffries Bay take on four rivals in a six-furlong race that includes Stone Rain and Spanish Chestnut, who is making his first start since setting the pace in last year's Kentucky Derby.

But as intriguing as that race is, it takes second billing to a six-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds.

The five runners in that race have 6 wins and 3 seconds from a combined 10 starts. The field consists of a stakes winner, Ballou Slew, who won the Flying Lark at Portland Meadows in his last start; maiden debut winners Smokey Stover and Surging Desire; stakes-placed Barber; and Midwesterner.

may be the best 3-year-old in northern California not named Cause to Believe or Frisco Star. Cause to Believe, who beat Barber by one length in the Mill Valley Stakes last November, is the likely favorite in Saturday's California Derby. Undefeated Frisco Star, sidelined with a cracked shin, edged Barber by a head in a January comeback race for both and by 1 1/4 lengths in the Novato Stakes on Feb. 19 at Golden Gate.

"You wonder why he hasn't gone farther," said Barber's trainer, Art Sherman, who also is sending out Ballou Slew. "He runs his eyeballs out every time."

Barber has the best speed in the field, but he ran well in a stalking role when Frisco Star just got past him in January.

"He's got speed, but he's not one-dimensional," Sherman said. "He can be wherever he wants."

Barber has worked a 47.60 bullet half-mile since his loss in the Novato.

If there is a budding star in the race who can beat Barber, it could be Smokey Stover, a stablemate of Frisco Star, who was impressive winning his debut by 2 1/2 lengths after missing the start and spotting the rest of the field several lengths.

"I had a feeling he might not break well, but it did surprise me he was back as far as he was," said Greg Gilchrist, Smokey Stover's trainer.

figures to improve off his debut and came out of the gate in good order in a work since that race. He may ultimately be better around two turns and will have to be awfully good on Friday to defeat Barber.