10/06/2005 11:00PM

Defections open door for 'Moonlite'

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The fastest California-bred 2-year-old, Bro Lo, is on the shelf with a chipped ankle, and the most accomplished California-bred 2-year-old, Brother Derek, is headed for the Breeders' Cup. Their absences leave a modest field of six statebred juveniles to run for a $75,000 purse in the Cavonnier Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita.

A seven-furlong race, the Cavonnier is positioned as a prep for the $125,000 California Cup Juvenile on Nov. 6. Until defections, the possible Cavonnier starters were a strong group. Bro Lo, who earned Beyer Speed Figures of 101 and 103, is out for 90 days; Brother Derek's win in the Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes earned him a trip to the Breeders' Cup; Irish Bar won the Gateway to Glory at Fairplex Park and is the Cal Cup favorite; and well-regarded Da Stoops got sick.

Handicapping the Cavonnier centers on one key question: Will Moonlite Romance exploit the soft pace by using his speed, or will he concede his tactical advantage to Her Red, a recent maiden winner who is the only other front-runner? If a pace duel unfolds between Moonlite Romance and Her Red, the Cavonnier could unravel in favor of a closer.

The most likely beneficiaries of a pace battle are Direct Connect and Seven Nation Army, who finished first and third in the $115,400 Barretts Juvenile Stakes at Fairplex. At a Boy Russ finished third in a minor stakes in his most recent start, and Topper Country scored a looping maiden win Aug. 22 at Del Mar and also would benefit from a contested pace.

Win or lose, is the horse to beat. A son of Game Plan trained by Ed Moger and owned by Curt and Lila Lanning, Moonlite Romance has improved in each start. He won his third start with a 53 Beyer, improved to 69 winning a starter allowance, then improved to 83 when he finished second to Bro Lo in the I'm Smokin at Del Mar. Moonlite Romance has never set the pace, but usually is positioned near the lead. He will be in the right spot to make the lead turning for home.

The improvement by was more sudden. They finished one-two in a slowly run maiden race at Del Mar, and both showed marked improvement in their second start in the Barretts Juvenile. Direct Connect made up eight lengths in the final quarter-mile to score a 6-1 upset under Garrett Gomez. Seven Nation Army finished third.

The Cavonnier is named for 1996 Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier and goes as race 8 on the card.