07/14/2006 12:00AM

Cat Criminal leaps into Richards

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Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Ah Day, winning the Federico Tesio at Pimlico in April, is one of the top threats to Cat Criminal in Sunday's Grade 3 Richards at Delaware.

The way trainer Steve Klesaris looks at it, there's no time like the present to find out whether Cat Criminal can handle stakes-caliber 3-year-olds.

After easily beating maidens and clearing his first allowance condition, the lightly raced Cat Criminal will make his stakes debut in Sunday's Grade 3, $300,000 Leonard Richards Stakes at Delaware Park.

The 1 1/16-mile Richards heads three undercard stakes on a 12-race live program that features the $1 million Delaware Handicap.

sustained a fracture in a hind ankle during his career debut last summer at Saratoga and didn't race again late May, when he earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure for his 10 3/4-length romp in a maiden special weight route. He came back 3 1/2 weeks later to score a wire-to-wire 1 1/4-length win against a first-level allowance field that contained older horses, earning a 93 Beyer. Rather than go slowly by looking for another allowance, Klesaris decided to move Cat Criminal directly into stakes competition.

"There is no doubt this a step we have to try," Klesaris said. "He has got ability, and he has shown talent from a numbers standpoint. Now it is time for him to step up to the plate to see if he can handle the kind he will be up against.

"I am optimistic. He is still a little green and he is still learning, but he will get the hang of it, and within his own age group I think he is up for the task."

The two most experienced horses in the Richards, , figure to be Cat Criminal's prime rivals. Little Cliff, trained by Nick Zito, and Ah Day, based in Maryland with King Leatherbury, both have 10 races under their belt and have combined for eight wins, including three in stakes.

Little Cliff, whose best finish in a stakes came when he ran third in the $100,000 Sir Barton at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard, will be adding blinkers after he was all out to beat second-level allowance runners at Delaware. Trainer Nick Zito made a similar equipment change to win last year's Richards with Sun King.

Ah Day has won 3 of his last 4, including the $124,000 Federico Tesio over a sloppy track at Pimlico in April.

The Richards immediately precedes the Del Cap as race 10 at 5:13 p.m. Eastern.

Caesar Rodney: Icy Atlantic looks beatable

The Todd Pletcher-trained Icy Atlantic will be favored in the $200,000 Caesar Rodney, at 1 1/8 miles on turf, after winning the $60,000 Battle Field at the Meadowlands in his most recent start. Considering that was Icy Atlantic's first win in 13 races over the last two seasons, however, it's hard to guess whether he can put together back-to-back victories.

There are several viable alternatives, most prominently the New York-based Woodlander and Exterior, a 5-year-old with lots of back class.

Woodlander, trained by Tom Albertrani, won the Grade 3 Lexington at Belmont last season as a 3-year-old. He hasn't come close to winning in four subsequent stakes tries, but is 2 for 2 at nine furlongs and was up close at the stretch call of his last start, the Grade 3 Poker at Belmont.

Exterior wasn't beaten badly in four starts against Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes company between July and October last season. He is eligible to move forward now in just his second start of the year.

Light Hearted: Can Trickle of Gold rebound?

Horse-for-the-course Trickle of Gold will spot her five rivals in the $100,000 Light Hearted Stakes at six furlongs between four and six pounds as the 123-pound highweight.

A 4-year-old, Trickle of Gold is 7 for 10 at Delaware, including a track-record performance at 5 1/2 furlongs in May. The question is whether her form is heading south after she regressed 21 points on the Beyer scale as the beaten favorite in the $100,000 My Juliet at Philadelphia Park on June 24.

If Trickle of Gold doesn't bring her "A" game, the once-beaten Contrast has a big shot. Contrast is coming off a career-best 104 Beyer for her win in an overnight stakes June 20.