08/20/2009 11:00PM

Cuba could salvage year with Hesse repeat


OCEANPORT, N.J. - A disappointing season for Cuba could turn around quickly Sunday with a repeat victory in the $100,000 Charles Hesse III Handicap at Monmouth Park.

The Hesse is the richest of 11 races devoted exclusively to New Jersey-breds. The annual New Jersey Thoroughbred festival also features two $75,000 statebred sprint handicaps: the Eleven North for fillies and mares and the New Jersey Breeders.

Cuba, 8, is 1 for 6 this year heading into the Hesse at 1 1/16 miles. The lone win came in a starter handicap at Gulfstream Park in January.

Last year was a magical one, following an $18,000 claim by trainer Bobby Dibona at Gulfstream in February.

The Hesse was only one of seven victories in 2008, including the Maryland Millions Classic. In his most notable defeat, Cuba was third to Commentator in the Massa-chusetts Handicap.

This season, the magic vanished.

"We're trying to make a couple of last dances," Dibona said. "He's coming into this thing beautifully."

Cuba was second last time in a third-level optional claimer against open company.

"It should set him up well, back with his own kind," Dibona said. "We won it last year, and I'd love to win it again."

This is a critical test for Cuba, one that will determine if he can still be a stakes runner, or if a return to claimers beckons for the veteran.

"We've had a couple of little things going on this year," Dibona said. "He's feeling really right. These races will let us tell after that. There is still a lot of money on the table, even in the claiming ranks."

Bythebeautifulsea, second to Cuba in last year's Hesse, looks to turn the tables for trainer Jason Servis. He comes into the race in top form, having won consecutive open allowances here in his last two outings.

N.J. Breeders: Volk confident

Trainer Scott Volk couldn't be more confident heading into the New Jersey Breeders with Unwritten.

"They have to beat me," Volk said. "I have the horse to beat."

Like Cuba, Unwritten is a claim that really panned out. Taken for $7,500 at Monmouth last summer, Unwritten has won six times since then, and was a perfect 4 for 4 over the winter at Aqueduct.

Volk freshened Unwritten after he finished third in the Mr. Prospector, an open stakes, here on July 3. Go Go Shoot, the Mr. Prospector winner, came back to run second, beaten one length by Fabulous Strike, in the Grade 2 A.G. Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 9.

The drop from an open to a restricted stakes is a big plus for Unwritten. So is the time off. Unwritten has a history of running big races when fresh.

And he is sharp, having turned in a four-furlong drill in 47 on Aug. 14, the fastest of 28 at the distance.

"He's back with the New Jersey-breds, he's going to the front, and no one can run with him," Volk said.

Lucky James will try to keep pace. He was game winner last time out in open company, eking out a nose win in a second-level allowance here on Aug. 7.

Eleven North: Little Stitch on a roll

Little Stitch takes a three-race winning streak into the Eleven North.

A 3-year-old homebred for Karen B. Jennings, Little Stitch has posted a lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure in each of the three wins, hitting 91 last time out in a first-level allowance against open company.

This will be her first stakes appearance.

"She looks the part, a big, strong, pretty filly," said trainer Ben Perkins Jr. "We like the way she's been going, and she has the right kind of mind to handle this step up."