01/29/2010 12:00AM

Connally contention runs deep

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There is money to be made Saturday night in the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf at Sam Houston Race Park. Not only does the 1 1/8-mile handicap offer its participants the richest purse of the meet, but horseplayers should get value on any selection they make in the field of 14.

"I don't think there's going to be a short-priced favorite in this bunch," said Kelly Von Hemel, who trains leading contender Orientate Express. "I think there's a whole bunch of us that can win this race. I think it's a very competitive field."

And a confusing one, too. Pool Play, the 119-pound starting highweight, has never won on turf but took down a Grade 3 at the Connally distance last fall on Polytrack at Woodbine. King Dan, the speed from the rail, has never raced beyond 1 1/16 miles, while Gretsky and Fifteen Love are making their first starts for new trainers after racing in Southern California and Canada.

Orientate Express is one of just three horses in the Connally who have won a turf stakes, along with Going Ballistic and Ernesto. In October at Remington Park, Orientate Express was up for a neck win over Steve's Double in the $150,000 Remington Green. Following that race, Orientate Express won the $50,000 Veteran on dirt at Zia Park in November.

"The big advantage of this horse is he'll run over anything," Von Hemel said. "We've had good races on the grass. We've had good races on the dirt. We're leaning toward maybe he's a little better grass horse, and maybe Saturday night will tell us more whether we're right or not."

Glen Murphy will ride Orientate Express. He might get a tracking trip behind King Dan and Acting Zippy, a multiple stakes winner on dirt who figures to show speed off his front-running allowance win last out at Sam Houston.

Mark Casse, who trains Pool Play, said he would like to see a fast pace.

"He likes to come running," Casse said.

Pool Play comes into the Connally off a closing third-place finish to winner Cloudy's Knight and Eagle Poise going 1 3/4 miles in the $154,000 Valedictory at Woodbine on Dec. 6.

"His last race, Cloudy's Knight is one of the best older horses in North America and Eagle Poise is a horse by Empire Maker that could be any kind," Casse said. "Those are two really good horses that beat him."

Pool Play has made two starts on turf, finishing second in one of them, a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Woodbine. He will be ridden by Patrick Husbands.

Going Ballistic, a millionaire, is making his second appearance in the Connally. He finished second in the most recent running of the race in 2008. Last year the Connally was canceled because Sam Houston's entire meet had to be scrapped because of damage inflicted by Hurricane Ike.

"There was no pace and he was right up behind them and he had to come through on the rail and just got beat a head," trainer Donnie Von Hemel said of Going Ballistic's 2008 Connally trip. "He can run that way, but his best races are when there is plenty of pace for him to run at."

Luis Quinonez has the mount on Going Ballistic.

Baltimore Bob invades from Fair Grounds for trainer Helen Pitts. Ablaze with Spirit and Red Rock Creek are coupled for trainer Steve Asmussen, and Fifteen Love and Real Appeal are coupled for trainer Jerenesto Torrez.

* On the undercard, the $50,000 Jersey Lilly at 1 1/16 miles on turf drew 14 fillies and mares, including stakes winners Love to Tell, Pleasantly Blessed, and Final Refrain.