02/09/2006 12:00AM

Crystal Event figures to step up

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NEW YORK - The spotlight Saturday will be on Santa Anita, which presents a Grade 1 stakes doubleheader comprising the Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and the Santa Maria Handicap for older females. Each race is worth $250,000. The only other graded stakes on Saturday's schedule is the Grade 3, $100,000 Appleton Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

California Breeders' Cup Oaks

This feature on the first Saturday of Golden Gate's spring meeting drew an eclectic field, including several Southern California shippers. But it is a local filly, Crystal Event, who is the bet in this spot.

Crystal Event comes into this off a second in northern California's precursor to this event, the Burlingame Handicap at Bay Meadows. She was beaten two lengths by Seam Seeker, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 89, which is tops in this field. But a case can be made that Crystal Event ran every bit as well as Seam Seeker.

For one, Seam Seeker enjoyed a perfect trip stalking a pace set by an overmatched longshot, whereas Crystal Event had to rally from farther back in the field. When Crystal Event did get going, she had to steady on the rail on the far turn behind the tiring pacesetter and then was caught in tight between horses turning for home. All of that cost Crystal Event momentum and enabled Seam Seeker to build a lead she would not relinquish.

There are other reasons to be impressed with the way Crystal Event ran in the Burlingame. It was only the second start of her career and her first on dirt. Crystal Event improved her Beyer to 85 after earning a 66 in her narrow victory on turf in her career debut. She really doesn't have to improve much more to win this, but since this is only her third start, there is every reason to anticipate another step forward.

Appleton Handicap

Host will likely be the favorite here because the whole world knows he won the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile last fall and that he was beaten only three lengths in the Breeders' Cup Mile despite traffic trouble in the stretch. And it seems like almost every horse backed by the team of Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez, as Host is, goes off the favorite at Gulfstream. But Host is best as a deep closer, making him prone to traffic trouble. I'll try to beat him with Saint Stephen.

Okay, I may have a personal contract with Saint Stephen. And talk about a horse prone to trouble. But if Saint Stephen gets the clean trip he lacked in his last two starts, he can win this race at a better price than Host. Last time out in the Fort Lauderdale, Saint Stephen was taken up when sawed off entering the first turn, was steadied entering the backstretch, was caught at least six wide around the far turn, and was still beaten only two lengths in finishing fifth. Two starts back in the Tropical Turf Handicap, Saint Stephen was steadied leaving the infield chute, lacked room on the rail on the far turn and in the stretch, and was beaten less than four lengths. He is ready for a big effort third start off a layoff and won both his starts over the Gulfstream turf course last year.

Essex Handicap

Rockport Harbor might be poised for a big season this year, but since he could be at his most vulnerable Saturday coming back off a 10-month absence, I'm going with Cougar Cat.

Cougar Cat flashed ability on turf early in his career in France, which is interesting because as a son of Storm Cat out of Excellent Meeting, he would figure to be best on dirt. He was returned to the U.S. last year and got it together on dirt at Louisiana Downs in his last two starts, winning both allowance sprints in blowout fashion. This is a much tougher spot, but Cougar Cat is not only bred to relish the added distance, he is also cut out to be a top horse, and might work out a dream trip stalking a pace contested by Rockport Harbor and Thunder Mission.

Saturday

Gulfstream Park: Appleton Handicap
3 And Up, 1 Mile, Turf

Approximate post: Eastern-5:16 p.m., Central-4:16 p.m., Mountain-3:16 p.m., Pacific-2:16 p.m.; Hallandale Beach, Fl., forecast: Slight chance of rain, 79¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Drum Major98949510-1
2L'Oiseau d'Argent721001036-1
3Saint Stephen93961016-1
4Gulch Approval10499804-1
5Host851041065-2
6Happy Hunting9089947-2
7Ecclesiastic938510012-1
8Network94849412-1
9Old Forester10494833-1
10Old Dodge969410115-1

Main track only: Happy Hunting; odds by Art Gropper

Oaklawn Park: Essex Handicap
4 And Up, 1 1/16 Miles

Approximate post: E-6:02 p.m., C-5:02 p.m., M-4:02 p.m., P-3:02 p.m.; Hot Springs, Ar., forecast: Partly cloudy, 40¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Matched86826715-1
2Cougar Cat9496808-1
3Jonesboro8594868-1
4Real Dandy9394855-2
5Rockport Harbor65941027-2
6Silver Axe86-1036-1
7Greater Good8482834-1
8Thunder Mission9399748-1

Track morning line odds

Golden Gate: California Breeders' Cup Oaks
3-Year-Old Fillies, 1 1/16 Miles

Approximate post: E-7:15 p.m., C-6:15 p.m., M-5:15 p.m., P-4:15 p.m.; Berkeley, Ca., forecast: Sunny, 68¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Zoemeg80746212-1
2Political Web6487668-1
3Sierra Sweetie8470715-1
4Private World5485847-2
5Princess Kinzie74704915-1
6Crystal Event8566-3-1
7Cross74657210-1
8Seam Seeker8961795-2
9Bai and Bai6673688-1

Odds by Michael Hammersly