01/23/2007 12:00AM

Commander Buck looks fit for '07 debut

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Commander Buck eagerly chowed down on a sweet potato with his lunch earlier this week, and the antioxidants in such a treat sure do agree with him. The picture of health for his first start of the year, Commander Buck is one of eight older horses who will meet in a competitive $100,000 optional claimer at Oaklawn Park on Thursday.

The 1 1/16-mile race should produce starters for the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap here Feb. 10. Others in the field are Absent Friend, Joey Carson, Sampson's Son, Go Now, Shaky Town, Silver, Haze, and Rotary.

Commander Buck came to hand at Oaklawn last year, when he won an optional claimer and placed in two others, facing such rivals as multiple Grade 3 winner Gouldings Green. Commander Buck went on to win the $75,000 Independence at Louisiana Downs in July, then was given much of the rest of the summer off because of the heat. Upon his return, he finished a close fourth in the $75,000 Governor's Cup at Remington Park Nov. 28, which was his last start.

"He ran a very good race," said Tom Howard, who trains Commander Buck. "He had a real good workout here the other morning, and he galloped out real strong."

Commander Buck, who went five furlongs in 1:01.20 on Saturday, is over 17 hands tall, and although he is a 6-year-old gelding, he is still a big kid. He manhandled the sweet potato like it was a carrot when it was offered, then jumped right back into his feed tub to finish lunch.

"He wants to be a racehorse," said Howard. "He loves his job. He's very happy."

Commander Buck will break from post 7 on Thursday under Perry Compton, and he could get a nice trip just off sprint stakes winner Joey Carson, who drew gate 2.

"That's what I'd like for him to do, sit right off of it," said Howard. "But that's up to him and Perry once they get out there, and however [Commander Buck] is comfortable is the way we got to do it. If it's a soft pace, he'll go to the front."

Sampson's Son was second in the Governor's Cup, finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Mr. Pursuit, who is expected for Saturday night's $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston. Sampson's Son shows a sharp half-mile work for his first start since the Governor's Cup. Trainer Steve Hobby has given the mount to Tim Doocy.

* There is a pick six carryover of $13,772 on Thursday's card.