02/08/2006 1:00AM

Cougar Cat to try routing in Essex


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Cougar Cat has put together two impressive sprint wins and on Saturday will make his two-turn debut in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

A 4-year-old son of Storm Cat and millionaire Excellent Meeting, Cougar Cat has made just three starts in North America after beginning his career in Ireland with trainer Aidan O'Brien. He was purchased privately last year and sent to trainer Ronny Werner in Kentucky.

In his first U.S. start, he was third in an entry-level allowance at Churchill Downs on Nov. 16. Cougar Cat then headed to the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs, where he won back-to-back allowances, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 96 for his win in a nonwinners-of-two-lifetime and a 94 for his victory in an optional claiming race on Jan. 22.

In both races, Cougar Cat stalked the pace and finished with a punch, prompting regular rider Robby Albarado last month to list him as one of the best horses he rode during the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs.

"I think he'll stretch the way he's come from off of it," said Werner, who is racing in Hot Springs for the first time since 1999. "He's really been settling off of horses. He's been very professional.

"Naturally, there's just a lot more races and a lot more options [if he can route], so we are going to try him."

Cougar Cat owns the highest last-race Beyer in the projected Essex field, which also includes Real Dandy, who is highweighted at 118; Greater Good, 116; Rockport Harbor, 115; Silver Axe, 115; Matched, 113; and Thunder Mission, 113.

Cougar Cat, weighted at 113, races for Richland Hills, Nathan Fox, and Richard Kaster. He is one of two foals from Excellent Meeting, a four-time Grade 1 winner who earned $1,402,396 and died in March 2004. Cougar Cat has won 3 of 9 starts and was Group 3-placed as a 2-year-old in Ireland.

"He's got the whole package," said Werner. "He's a very, very well-balanced colt. He's got some scope to him. He's a Storm Cat, and you've got to love them. They've got a lot of fight in them."

Cougar Cat is one of two Storm Cats from Europe that Werner currently has in training. The other is Charismatic Cat, who is working toward his North American debut. In all, Werner has about 40 horses, split between Oaklawn and Louisiana Downs. His son, Rowdy Werner, works as his assistant.

Unbridled Sidney nearing return

Among the promising horses Werner has based here is Unbridled Sidney, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 when she won a Churchill Downs turf sprint in July. In her last work, she went a bullet four furlongs in 46.40 seconds on Tuesday.

"She's coming around quickly," said Werner, who is considering starting Unbridled Sidney in the $50,000 Spring Fever at 5 1/2 furlongs on March 4.

Flying Glitter, winner of the Grade 3 Monmouth Breeders' Cup Oaks and Grade 3 Indiana Breeders' Cup Oaks last year, is also in training at Oaklawn with Werner.

"She's a nice tactical type of filly that can go seven-eighths to a mile and a sixteenth," said Werner, who looks for her to be ready later in the meet.

Rich Fantasy, second last out in the $50,000 Dixie Belle for 3-year-old fillies, is a candidate for the $50,000 Martha Washington on Feb. 19.

Thumbs up for Lawyer Ron

Lawyer Ron walked the shed row before dawn on Wednesday morning, a day after working six furlongs in a bullet 1:12 at Oaklawn in preparation for the $250,000 Southwest Stakes for 3-year-olds on Feb. 20.

Bob Holthus, who trains Lawyer Ron, said the colt has come out of the drill in good order, and ate all of his feed from the night before. Lawyer Ron earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 106 last out for his win in the Grade 3 Risen Star in Louisiana.

* Semaphore Man, who earned a Beyer of 102 for a recent allowance win at Oaklawn, breezed on Wednesday morning, and his trainer, Kelly Von Hemel, said he is still contemplating the colt's next move. Plans are to keep Semaphore Man sprinting, said Von Hemel.

* The Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel will be telecast live on ESPN on March 18, and the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby will be shown live on ABC on April 15. The races are part of the Citgo Racing to the Kentucky Derby Series.