07/02/2008 11:00PM

Bernie Blue seeks repeat


Bernie Blue concedes 12 pounds to a graded winner in the Mountain State.P

Bernie Blue is arguably the most versatile and consistent older horse regularly competing at Mountaineer Racetrack. But is he good enough to concede 12 pounds to a graded stakes winner?

That's the intriguing question handicappers face in the Mountain State, the last of three $75,000 stakes on Saturday night's 10-race card.

The 6-year-old Bernie Blue, based at Thistledown with trainer Miguel Feliciano, has won four stakes at Mountaineer since last July at distances ranging from 4 1/2 furlongs to a mile and 70 yards. He cruised to a 1 3/4-length win in last year's Mountain State and cuts back to 5 1/2 furlongs after being allowed to loaf on the lead throughout the mile and 70-yard Slipton Fell Handicap almost a month ago.

First or second in 19 of 22 starts locally, Bernie Blue is the co-highweight at 121 pounds in the Mountain State with Reigning Court, whose 3-for-3 record locally includes a 3 1/4-length win over Bernie Blue over a muddy track in the six-furlong Waterford Park Handicap in mid-May.

While Reigning Court is a serious threat, the long idle Off Duty might be even more formidable. Last fall, Off Duty was good enough to win the Grade 3 Phoenix over Keeneland's Polytrack. But because he hasn't raced or won any money this year, Off Duty gets into the Mountain State with a feathery 109-pound weight assignment. He has prepped for his first start since November with a series of solid workouts at Churchill Downs, including four-furlong bullet in 47.20 seconds on June 27.

* Spanish Mission, perhaps the most improved horse on the grounds, goes for his fourth straight victory and second stakes in the one-mile Independence Day on turf (race 4).

Claimed out of a win over conditioned $5,000 sprinters on March 18 by trainer Scooter Davis, the 6-year-old Spanish Mission has since led wire to wire while beating $15,000 claimers going long on dirt, the one-mile Memorial Day on turf, and a seven-furlong starter allowance on the grass.

He will be challenged by Buckeye Buddy and Guardianofthenorth, who finished a neck apart as the one-two finishers in last summer's West Virginia Speaker's Cup.

Buckeye Buddy, part of a coupled William Connelly-trained entry, will be making the third start of his form cycle after two off-the-board finishes at Churchill Downs.

Guardianofthenorth, 5 for 8 over Mountaineer's grass course, returns to the grass for his second start of the year after flashing good speed and stopping in a one-mile race over the Tapeta at Presque Isle Downs.

* The Kentucky-based filly Beautiful Venue returns to a turf course where she has run well in the past for the one-mile Firecracker for fillies and mares (race 3).

Second in this race a year ago, Beautiful Venue is 4 for 6 on Mountaineer's turf course, including a half-length score in the Decoration Day six weeks ago.

Her competition includes the 8-year-old Afleet Angel, the close runner-up to Beautiful Venue in last year's West Virginia President's Breeders' Cup, and Si Si Mon Ami, beaten just a half-length by Beautiful Venue in the Decoration Day.