02/12/2004 12:00AM

Beware of seven-furlong specialists


Familiarity with Laurel Park and its seven-furlong chute may be more important handicapping factors than experience in graded stakes when it comes to gauging the 12 fillies and mares entered in Saturday's Barbara Fritchie Handicap.

Unlike the past two runnings of the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie, both won by locally based sprint star Xtra Heat, this year's edition of the $200,000 stakes worth lured almost no one with graded stakes credentials, let alone a win against graded company.

That means Gazillion and Bronze Abe, a pair of mares who have proven themselves running seven-eighths of a mile at Laurel in minor stakes, have an excellent chance at a big payday.

The Barbara Fritchie is the first leg of the Magna 5, a $2 pick-five wager, and part of Laurel's Winter SprintFest that features four stakes over three days.

Gazillion, a 5-year-old mare trained by Hamilton Smith, is a three-time stakes winner at Laurel, with all of the wins coming at seven furlongs. She's back at her favorite distance after losing her last two starts at six furlongs.

"I think she has a good shot," Smith said. "She can be tough at seven-eighths. I think it is a better distance for her. Regardless of what happens Saturday we are planning on stretching out, which will open up more options."

Hall of Fame trainer Bud Delp will saddle Bronze Abe, an added-money winner for four consecutive years. Last month, Bronze Abe began her 5-year-old campaign by upsetting Gazillion in the $75,000 What a Summer Stakes.

Based purely on class, Southern California shipper Bear Fan is the logical 7-5 favorite on the track's morning line. She won two California-bred stakes in 2002 and was competitive in Grade 2 and Grade 3 stakes last summer at Hollywood Park. Bear Fan was most recently third, despite a troubled trip, in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint.

Ryan Fogelsonger, scheduled to arrive from California on Saturday morning, will ride Bear Fan on his first day back in Maryland. He talked to Hall of Fame riders Mike Smith and Julie Krone to learn a little about his mount.

"Mike Smith told me she is a real nice filly to ride," Fogelsonger said. "Apparently she breaks slowly but she'll run them down.

"Julie breezed her earlier this week and thinks she has a huge engine," Fogelsonger added. "Obviously they must have a great deal of confidence to ship across the country."

Other contenders include Shiny Sheet, a four-time stakes winner making her first start since early December; Balmy, who won the Garland of Roses in New York at 25-1 in December, beating Gazillion by a head; and City Fire, a wire-to-wire winner of the Nellie Morse at Laurel two weeks ago.

Evening Attire tops Campbell

Based on Beyer Speed Figures and current class, Evening Attire appears a standout in the $150,000 John B. Campbell Handicap, which immediately precedes the Barbara Fritchie on Saturday's program.

The New York-based Evening Attire has not earned anything less than a 101 Beyer Speed Figure in his last nine starts, and has primarily competed against Grade 1 and Grade 2 company. Most recently, he was nosed out by Seattle Fitz in last month's Grade 3 Aqueduct Handicap. Seattle Fitz returned to finish second behind Medaglia d'Oro in last weekend's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream.

The only other horses in the 1 1/8-mile Campbell with a recent triple-digit Beyer in their past performances are Ole Faunty and Rogue Agent.

The Elliott Walden-trained Ole Faunty, a 5-year-old, returned from a three-month layoff to easily beat high-priced optional claimers, earning a 102 Beyer, on Jan. 15. He's cross-entered in Saturday's Dust Commander Stakes at Turfway Park.

Rogue Agent, who was running against $35,000 claimers as recently as last August, nearly stole the Aqueduct Handicap at 30-1. He gave way grudgingly late in the stretch to finish third, with a career-best 109 Beyer.