02/16/2006 1:00AM

Blazing Rate playable if you toss loss in slop

Blazing Rate (above) is a viable alternative to heavy favorite Bluegrass Cat in the Sam Davis.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Not too long ago it would have been unimaginable to think that the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs would become a significant prep toward the Kentucky Derby. Yet that is what it has become, as noted by Saturday's field, which has attracted Bluegrass Cat, one of the favorites for the May 6 Derby, as well as such talented 3-year-old prospects as Laptop Computer, R Loyal Man, Hesanoldsalt, and Blazing Rate.

The reason for the shift in importance is at least threefold. First, it is a more lucrative race today, with a purse of $125,000, than it was in the late 1990's, when it was just a $25,000 to $28,000 event. Second, it has benefited from the support of Nick Zito, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, who has run such prominent horses as The Cliff's Edge and Andromeda's Hero in recent years there. And third, it has Gulfstream Park to thank.

When Gulfstream's main track was revamped for the 2005 meet, it became a 1 1/8-mile dirt oval - making it impossible to card 1 1/16-mile races, a distance preferred by many horsemen when beginning two-turn preparations for the Derby. Nine furlongs is perceived to be too far to run a talented colt who is just starting off the season.

Throw in the fact that Fair Grounds is not racing following damage from Hurricane Katrina, eliminating some options for 3-year-olds, and you have the recipe for attracting a graded-stakes quality field.

Just as important to horseplayers, there should be no shortage of price horses in the field, with 11 horses entered against favored Bluegrass Cat. That is why I intend to play the race, specifically by betting on Blazing Rate to upset.

Although Bluegrass Cat is the most likely winner, he is no mortal lock. The opposition is good, and Bluegrass Cat has not raced since winning the Remsen in late November.

I do not see any particular faults with him, except one: a lack of value. Everything about him attracts attention - from his connections, Eclipse Award winners Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez, to his pedigree. He is son of Storm Cat, out of an A.P. Indy mare.

Just how fancied is Bluegrass Cat by the betting public? He went off as the fifth choice at 15-1 odds in the first round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager - behind the field, Stevie Wonderboy, First Samurai, and Private Vow.

Blazing Rate, by contrast, should offer a rewarding price. Coming off a last-place finish in the Hutcheson at Gulfstream, a race in which he was beaten 24 lengths by Keyed Entry on a sloppy track, he will likely be dismissed by the betting public.

But those willing to forgive that loss - the one poor effort of his five-race career - may find him appealing. A two-time stakes winner around two turns, he acts like a legitimate colt on a fast track. With sunny skies forecast for Tampa on Saturday, he should get his preferred dry surface.

Also working in his favor is his starting position. Drawn in post 2, Blazing Rate, a midpack closer, should be able to secure a favorable running position behind what is expected to be a fast to moderate pace.

Early pressure could soften up Bluegrass Cat, and play to the strength of Blazing Rate. At a price, at least, it seems a gamble worth taking.

Lawyer Ron should romp in Southwest

The Sam F. Davis is not the only top 3-year-old race this holiday weekend. Monday, the Southwest will be contested at Oaklawn.

Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer, two of the Arkansas-based colts pointing for that spot, act like classy runners. Both have progressed in recent months, with Lawyer Ron winning three in a row, and Steppenwolfer impressing with a last-to-first rally in an allowance.

I expect Lawyer Ron to run away with the race, as he has his last few starts. He is a gifted horse, blessed with speed and acceleration.

In watching his last three wins, I've been amazed by the sudden acceleration he has displayed when called upon entering the stretch. His jockey, John McKee, nudges him out of the gate, allows him to run comfortably in the two or three path, and then turns him loose leaving the final turn. At that point, he finishes with a burst of energy, much like a turf horse.

I'm not sure how his free-running style will ultimately play in a race like the Derby, which typically has a fast pace and much congestion, but it is not difficult to envision him dominating at Oaklawn.