10/12/2008 12:00AM

Casino Drive preps for Classic


ARCADIA, Calif. - Casino Drive, unbeaten and untested after two starts in Japan and New York, is expected to make his California debut in a $52,000 allowance race at Santa Anita on Sunday designed as a prep for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic here on Oct. 25.

As recently as Wednesday, the people behind Casino Drive said he was doubtful for Sunday's race, but they changed their minds on Thursday when entries were taken. As much as he seems to have superior form over his six rivals in the 1o1/16-mile race, his connections went to great lengths on Friday morning to downplay expectations.

"He needs a race," said Nobutaka Tada, the racing manager for owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto. "We don't expect too much. It's his first time at Santa Anita and first time on a synthetic surface. We're just keeping quiet."

Little surrounding Casino Drive has been quiet in his brief career, and despite Tada's remarks, bettors will make Casino Drive the favorite.

After winning a maiden race in Japan by 11 1/2 lengths in February, he scored a convincing win in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes by 5 3/4 lengths at Belmont Park on May 10. The Peter Pan was supposed to be a prep for the Belmont Stakes on Juneo7, but Casino Drive missed the Belmont because of a bruised foot.

Trained by Kazuo Fujisawa, Casino Drive resumed serious exercise in August, Tada said. The Kentucky-bred colt, by Mineshaft, arrived in California in early October. He breezed five furlongs in 1:02 at Hollywood Park on Thursday.

"He worked well and he's feeling good," Tada said. "He was still fresh after the workout."

Casino Drive will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, who may earn the mount for the BC Classic, Tada said. "We'll see how he matches," Tada said of Espinoza.

To win Sunday's race, Casino Drive has to beat horses with proven Fairplex Park form. Dakota Phone finished a wide third in the Pomona Derby on Sept. 20, Gregorian Bay was third in the Phil Shepherd Stakes on Sept. 6, and Sensational Score was a wide third in the Ralph Hinds Pomona Invitational on Sept.o21.

The presence of Casino Drive intrigues Mike Mitchell, who trains Sensational Score.

"He's obviously a good horse, but you don't know what the connections are doing," Mitchell said. "Are they going to go all out? Do they want to get a race under his belt? Mine is an older horse and he's a warrior."

Sensational Score finished fourth in the Claiming Crown Jewel at Canterbury Park on Aug. 2.