06/18/2004 12:00AM

In close call, Frazier to ride 'Brad'


AUBURN, Wash. - Leading rider Ricky Frazier and his agent, Boone McCanna, faced an enviably tough decision regarding Sunday's $75,000 Budweiser Emerald Handicap at a mile.

Frazier is the regular rider for both Willie the Cat, who is undefeated in six sprints at Emerald, and Poker Brad, who ran second to Sky Jack in last year's Grade 3 Longacres Mile. Frazier and McCanna put off making a decision as to which horse Frazier would ride as long as they could, but Thursday morning it was time to fish or cut bait.

"We're going with Poker Brad," said McCanna. "Ricky hates to give up the mount on Willie, but we've got to go with the horse who is already proven at a mile. Poker Brad was second in the Longacres Mile last year, he is coming off a big win in a mile allowance race, and he is training like a monster. It just makes sense."

The choice does make sense based on what the two horses have demonstrated to date, but McCanna knows full well there are no guarantees.

"If it turns out Willie can get the distance, we'll be kicking ourselves," he said.

Not even McCanna's brother, Tim McCanna, who trains both Willie the Cat and Poker Brad, knows for sure whether Willie the Cat can stretch his abundant speed to a mile. But Tim says he feels Willie the Cat deserves a chance to try.

"He'll be worth more if he shows he can run this far, and we'll have a lot more options with him," he said. "And if he is ever going to do it, now is the time. He is dead fit off three sprint races, and he has learned to relax pretty well."

Still, it's not as if there is no potential harm in trying.

"We already know he is a top-light sprinter," said Tim McCanna. "I just hope I'm not making a mistake by trying to make him something he isn't."

Tim McCanna said the indications are mixed as to whether Willie the Cat can succeed around two turns. On the one hand, there is the memory of a mile workout over a wet track two years ago, when Willie the Cat tired badly. On the other, there is the way Willie the Cat has been racing and training of late.

"I was really encouraged by the way he was pulling away at the end of his last race," said Tim McCanna. "He relaxed early and finished up strong, and he has been doing the same thing in his training. Ricky thinks he'll handle the distance just fine. Then again, Ricky chose to ride the other horse, so who really knows?"

Like Frazier, Tim McCanna says he has no doubts about Poker Brad's ability to succeed at a mile.

"He is the proven horse, so I can understand Ricky's decision," he said. "Plus he is doing excellent right now. I was able to get a good prep into him, yet I don't think there is any way he'll bounce off that race. It wasn't his best effort, and he has had three weeks to recover. He won't have any excuses."

Gallyn Mitchell picked up the mount on Willie the Cat, who will not race coupled with Poker Brad in the wagering.

The horse with the best chance of upsetting the McCanna-trained duo could be Slewicide Cruise, an improving 4-year-old who seemed to run a breakthrough race when second, beaten just a length by Willie the Cat, in the 6 1/2-furlong Fox Sports Net Handicap last time out May 23.

"I was really pleased with his race, and I'm pleased with the progress he has made since last year," said trainer Robbie Baze. "It surprised me last time that he was able to lay so close to the fast fractions and still finish well, but he is showing me something new almost every time he runs."

Baze said Slewicide Cruise is a big horse who has needed more time than most to mature. Slewicide Cruise did not race at 2 and raced only six times last year, winning for the first time in a six-furlong allowance race at Portland Meadows in November, then running third in the one-mile Thanksgiving Handicap in Portland. He had tried a mile once previously, running sixth in the Trooper Seven Stakes at this track.

"He was still a maiden when I ran him in the Trooper Seven and he was only beaten 4 1/2 lengths, then he was under pressure the whole way when I ran him a mile at Portland," said Baze. "I thought both of those races were pretty good. He'll have to run a lot better to be competitive in this race, but I think he's a lot better horse now. That's what I'm counting on."