02/28/2006 12:00AM

Dance Thief not long for maiden ranks

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ALBANY, Calif. - When Dance Thief lost his comeback race by a head on Jan. 19, there initially was disappointment in the Jeff Bonde barn. But all things considered, losing in a photo wasn't so bad. The mere fact that the colt was running was quite encouraging.

The second to Booker Time was Dance Thief's first start in 13 months. The colt returns Thursday in a six-furlong maiden sprint against six rivals.

debuted in the Willard Proctor Memorial as a 2-year-old on May 23, 2004, running second. In his next start, he was second to the future multiple graded-stakes winner Roman Ruler. He lost to Golden Shine and Roman Jake, both next-out winners, in his third start. Eclipse Award sprinter Lost in the Fog beat him in start No. 4, and the future stakes winner Loyalton beat him in his fifth start before he went to the sidelines for 13 months.

Dance Thief's illness was potentially life-threatening, Bonde said.

"He's lucky to be alive," he said.

There appears to be no Lost in the Fog or Roman Ruler in Thursday's race, and Bonde has given Dance Thief lots of time and four works since the Jan. 19 start in hopes of avoiding a bounce. Among the works is a five-furlong bullet.

In his comeback start, Dance Thief set the pace on a muddy track, running fractions of 22.62 seconds, 45.10, and 57.01 before being caught late by Booker Time in 1:09.48. He earned a career-best 80 Beyer.

Only , coming north to join the Art Sherman barn, has a higher Beyer in Thursday's field. He has a career high of 86. But he doesn't have Dance Thief's early speed, and he has spent much of his recent time facing claimers.

Thursday's race is filled with comebackers, including Bobby Dazzler, last seen more than two years ago on Oct. 19, 2003.

, making his first start since last May 13, seems the lone runner with the early foot to put some pressure on Dance Thief early, but Dance Thief has the strategic edge of an outside draw. Despite a solid work tab for Weekend Tiger, including three six-furlong works, his trainer, John Sadler, has a low win percentage first-start back off layoffs.

Red Wagon, off nearly 11 months, and Friday Night Blues, making his first start in seven months, were both second in their last race.