03/16/2004 12:00AM

Cryptograph getting good at the right time

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Cryptograph has picked the right time to come to hand. Immature as a 2-year-old, he has blossomed at 3 and will be seeking his fourth straight win Saturday when he makes his stakes debut in the $200,000 Rebel at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/16-mile race is the first leg of a $5 million bonus series sponsored by Oaklawn. A horse who wins the Rebel, the $1 million Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby would receive the bonus from Oaklawn president Charles Cella.

Cryptograph's progression over the winter can be measured in a number of ways, but the most obvious is Beyer Speed Figures. His last number at 2 was a 56, earned on turf when he won his two-turn debut Nov. 21.

In his first start at 3, Cryptograph earned a 94 Beyer when he won a one-mile allowance at Oaklawn on Jan. 23. He backed that number up in his most recent race, Feb. 13, when he won a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer and earned a 92 Beyer. The victory also gave him a 3-for-3 record around two turns.

"Compared to last season, he's a different horse as far as his ability to focus on the task at hand," said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Cryptograph for Pin Oak Stable.

Cryptograph, who has won three of four starts, has always had genetics and athleticism in his favor. He is a son of Cryptoclearance out of a sister to Canadian Horse of the Year Peaks and Valleys. But last year, it seemed Cryptograph's mind was working in other directions.

"Like a teenage boy, every time he saw a girl, he thought he was supposed to talk to her," Von Hemel said.

Cryptograph also did not care to be accompanied to the track by a pony, and was inconsistent in his works. Sometimes he would concentrate on them, Von Hemel said, and other times he would not.

"I even considered putting blinkers on him at one point, and now I'm glad I didn't," he said. "We just kept working him in company, trying to go over things he was supposed to be doing, and finally the lightbulb went off."

From then on, Cryptograph has made great strides. Von Hemel called him the most improved horse in the barn over the winter. And on paper, Cryptograph does look like a horse who is putting it all together. His mind, body, and distance-oriented pedigree seem to be on the same team, just in time for the biggest test of his career. Von Hemel is hopeful Cryptograph will rise to the occasion and continue his pattern of improvement into the Rebel.

"That will be the big question on Saturday," he said.

Purge arrives for Rebel

Purge rolled into the Oaklawn backstretch about 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday to run in the Rebel. He flew in from south Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher. Purge will be making his two-turn debut Saturday after winning six-furlong races in his two career starts, his most recent being a three-length score at Gulfstream Park in 1:09.40.

As of Tuesday, the field for the Rebel stood at eight. Other probables are Smarty Jones, Mr. Jester, Pro Prado, Gran Prospect, Maisie's Son, and Archie B.

Smarty Jones could go favored off his perfect 4-for-4 record. In his last start, he won the $100,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. He is trained by John Servis.

Shake You Down works a bullet

Shake You Down, one of the nation's top sprinters, worked four furlongs in a bullet 47 seconds on Tuesday in preparation for the $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes on Sunday. That race is a local prep for the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn on April 8.

Scott Lake, who trains Shake You Down, said the work was routine. "He usually runs his best races when he breezes four or five days out, so he just sharpened up for the [Hot Springs]," he said.

Jockey Mike Luzzi flew in to work Shake You Down.

"He usually will go a little quick [early]," said Luzzi. "Today he was even the whole workout, and as a rider that's a better feeling. He handled the turn real well. That's his forte in his races."

Shake You Down last raced Jan. 24, winning the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint at Gulfstream Park. Last year, he was third to Cajun Beat in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Shake You Down flew into Oaklawn on March 9.

* Cajole, who ran a big second to the talented River Mountain Rd. in his comeback race on Jan. 31, makes his third start off the layoff Thursday in the featured ninth race at Oaklawn Park. His chief rivals appear to be Witt Ante, who adds blinkers, and Big Glori.