07/19/2006 11:00PM

Commander Buck sharp off win

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Commander Buck is charged with defending his home track on Saturday, when he takes on invaders Watchem Smokey and High Strike Zone in the $75,000 Ark-La-Tex Handicap at Louisiana Downs.

The 1 1/16-mile race drew a field of eight, including the promising 3-year-old Mr. Pursuit.

Commander Buck enters the Ark-La-Tex off a 1 1/4-length win in the $75,000 Independence Handicap on July 3, a race that was moved to a wet-fast main track after inclement weather hit Louisiana Downs. Commander Buck led through six furlongs in 1:10.80 in that 1 1/16-mile race, then dug in through the stretch to finish in a strong time of 1:42.60. He earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 99.

"He came out of it real good,"

said Tom Howard, who trains Commander Buck for Lewis Matthews Jr. "It was our kind of race."

Howard said Commander Buck can come from off the pace, but enjoys racing on the lead. He figures to be prominent from post 5.

"He likes it out on the front end," Howard said. "He likes to set the pace and dictate the race."

Cody Meche, the apprentice rider who earned his first stakes win aboard Commander Buck in the Independence, has the mount. Commander Buck is weighted at 117 pounds for the race, while Watchem Smokey will tote high weight of 119 in the Ark-La-Tex.

Watchem Smokey is a fresh horse, having last raced on May 29. He finished an uncharacteristic ninth in the Grade 3, $400,000 Lone Star Park Handicap after dueling through hot fractions.

One start earlier, Watchem Smokey won the $75,000 John Henry Handicap at Evangeline Downs, stalking the pace set by Commander Buck and running the mile in a track-record time of 1:36.60.

Brandon Marks trains Watchem Smokey and has given the mount to Kerwin Clark.

High Strike Zone is the defending Ark-La-Tex champ, and he invades from Evangeline for the race, having won a one-mile optional claimer there in his last start June 1. Trainer Amos Laborde has given the mount to Ricky Faul.

Mr. Pursuit has a nice late kick, and would benefit if a duel develops on the lead. He was second in the $100,000 Alysheba Breeders' Cup at a mile at Lone Star in his last start July 1.

"He needs more ground," said Joe Petalino, who trains Mr. Pursuit. "A mile and a sixteenth, a mile and an eighth is good."

Petalino has given the mount to E.J. Perrodin.