11/02/2006 12:00AM

With clear run, Pine Island's in business


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Few trainers appreciate the 1,234-foot stretch of Churchill Downs more than Shug McGaughey. In 1988, McGaughey's Personal Ensign needed every inch of that stretch to run down Winning Colors and win the Breeders' Cup Distaff, capping off an undefeated career. In the 1994 Distaff, McGaughey's Heavenly Prize needed the stretch to be another two feet longer, as she fell a neck short of longshot speedster One Dreamer.

Saturday, another McGaughey charge, Pine Island, will attempt to weave her way through the Churchill Downs stretch, trying to win what many believe to be the deepest Distaff ever assembled. If she is able to travel the lane uninhibited, Pine Island could very well give McGaughey his fourth Distaff victory.

For the first time since 1992, the Distaff has attracted a full field of 14. Thirteen of the 14 are Grade 1 winners, including a trio from the mighty Todd Pletcher stable. This year's Distaff purse is $2.26 million.

With only six starts, Pine Island is the least experienced member of the field. Literally and figuratively she has made huge strides with every race, handling a demanding schedule that included four consecutive Grade 1 appearances. After victories in the Alabama on Aug. 19 and Gazelle on Sept. 9, McGaughey elected to freshen Pine Island for the Distaff.

"I just tried to keep her where she was the whole time, and I think we've done that, and she really hasn't missed a beat," McGaughey said. "It's just a matter of if she gets a hold of the track and gets some place to go. It's going to be up to Javier to get her in position to where maybe she can get in the clear and make a run at it, but I think we'll have plenty of time."

Pine Island will break from post 2 under Javier Castellano.

Pletcher's trio of Fleet Indian, Spun Sugar, and Pool Land have combined this year to win 13 of 17 starts, including five Grade 1 races. Fleet Indian is 6 for 6 this year, and her off-the-pace win in the Beldame last out defined her as the legitimate Distaff favorite.

"It puts us in a position where we are going to go to the Distaff and know that we can ride her however we want and not worry what everybody else is doing," Pletcher said.

Spun Sugar showed great determination winning both the Apple Blossom and Go for Wand handicaps by narrow margins. She comes off a fourth-place finish in the Spinster, run over Keeneland's new Polytrack surface.

"The Polytrack race is just a throw-out," Pletcher said. "She's proven in the Apple Blossom and the Go for Wand that on her day she's as good as anybody."

At this time last year, Pool Land was an unstarted maiden. Now, she is a Grade 1 winner who figures to be part of what could be a hotly contested pace.

Happy Ticket was sent off as the 9-2 second choice in last year's Distaff and finished 11th of 13. One of her two wins this year came at Churchill Downs in the Fleur de Lis Handicap. She encountered some traffic trouble in the Spinster and finished sixth, beaten three lengths.

"I think she's a little more mature going into this race this year than she was last year going to New York," said trainer Andrew Leggio. "She's going to run big Saturday."

Balletto has not won a race in two years, but was a close second in both the Go for Wand and Beldame. She should benefit from the two turns and 1 1/8 miles of this race and a hot pace. She must overcome post 14.

Asi Siempre is a bit of a wildcard. She won the Spinster over Polytrack, but has never raced over a conventional dirt surface. Her trainer, Patrick Biancone, said, it is 50-50 whether she will handle it, but if she does, "I think she will win."

Round Pond is a live longshot for Michael Matz, the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Matz said he believes Round Pond, last year's Acorn winner, has overcome foot problems that plagued her this year.

Bushfire is a three-time Grade 1 winner, but does not appear to be in her best form. Lemons Forever won the Kentucky Oaks over this track at 47-1, but has not been competitive since.

Baghdaria is a multiple Grade 3 winner who faces the test of her career in here. Healthy Addiction, Hollywood Story, and Sharp Lisa make up a Southern California contingent that appears to be a notch below its East Coast counterpart.