03/06/2008 12:00AM

Daytona gets new rider in quest for fifth straight

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California-based trainer Dan Hendricks was in a jovial mood, reached by phone last week to confirm that Daytona would be back at Fair Grounds for Saturday's Mervin Muniz Handicap after winning the Fair Grounds Handicap there a month ago.

"We're going back down to New Orleans to kick some butt," Hendricks said.

Hendricks's bravado came totally in jest - but he might be right anyway. After all, Daytona has won four straight graded stakes on turf, and showed in the Fair Grounds Handicap that he could perform just as effectively on the road as he had at home. Setting a solid pace that afternoon, Daytona had plenty left in the tank for his finish; up by three lengths at the stretch call, he won by 2 1/2.

But things are getting tougher in the Muniz, a 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 race with a purse of $500,000.

Jazz Quest and Sterwins were second and third in the Fair Grounds Cap. Jazz Quest is back for the Muniz, but won't be anything close to a favorite, while Sterwins's connections have passed the race entirely.

Eight besides Daytona and Jazz Quest were entered in the Muniz. A five-horse Florida-based contingent consists of Buffalo Man, Elusive Fort, Fracas, Twilight Meteor, and Yate's Black Cat. Another Californian, Proudinsky, also made the trip, and the Muniz marks the first start since August for the high-class Brilliant.

Strangely, Daytona has a new pilot Saturday. Mike Smith, who had ridden Daytona throughout his recent win streak, elected to stay at Santa Anita for other opportunities. Alex Solis, whose son, Alex Solis Jr., put together the ownership group that purchased Daytona, takes over the mount. Solis and Daytona drew the far outside post, but Daytona has plenty of speed to get position, and nine-furlong Fair Grounds grass races have a long run before the first turn.

Daytona raced in the clear throughout his last win, but may get at least token pressure on the backstretch from the rail-drawn Buffalo Man, if not others. Proudinsky was beaten three-quarters of a length by Daytona in the Dec. 30 San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita, and may try to take aim at Daytona before midstretch this time.

"I'd be really surprised if he didn't run well," trainer Bobby Frankel said of Proudinsky, a lightly raced German import.

Brilliant, who makes his Fair Grounds debut, hasn't raced since a sixth-place finish in the Fourstardave on Aug. 5 at Saratoga. Trainer Neil Howard might have preferred to go into the Muniz with a prep race, but Brilliant wasn't quite set for the Feb. 9 Fair Grounds Cap. Beaten a nose in the Grade 1 Turf Classic last Derby Day at Churchill, Brilliant has enough talent to win, and could be ready for a better performance than in his first start last season, a third-place finish in a Keeneland allowance race.

"It's a different situation," Howard said. "He's a lot tighter for this race than he was for the race at Keeneland."

Twilight Meteor started all over North America last year, the common denominator to his season being tough losses. He finished second in stakes at Woodbine, Delaware, and Hawthorne, and ended 2007 with a fast-closing third to the swift miler Monterey Jazz in the Sir Beaufort at Santa Anita.

Six-year-old Fracas, a solid Group 3 type in Ireland, makes his United States debut for trainer Barclay Tagg. Buffalo Man and Elusive Fort finished one-two in the Jan. 27 Appleton Handicap at Gulfstream. Elusive Fort couldn't catch Buffalo Man that day, but might outperform him in the Muniz.