05/25/2006 12:00AM

Different setting, setup give Atlas Valley boost

Atlas Valley (left) should receive the pace setup she needs in the Winning Colors at Churchill.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Ever Elusive and Hot Storm will undoubtedly be popular choices in Saturday's $100,000 Winning Colors Stakes at Churchill Downs. Ever Elusive, third most recently in the Grade 2 Vinery Madison Stakes at Keeneland, has won 4 of 9 starts, most in dominant fashion. Hot Storm has won five straight races, four of which were in stakes, including the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita on Jan. 28 in her last start.

The problem is that neither figures to offer much of a price. Ever Elusive, a $1 million purchase by Forestry, figures to get pounded off her pedigree and connections - trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Rafael Bejarano - and Hot Storm figures to take heavy action despite being unraced since early this year.

Their expected popularity at the mutuel windows leaves me focusing on a price-oriented alternative, Atlas Valley, who is 5-1 on the track morning line. A midpack closer, she figures to get a favorable trip rallying behind what should be a fast pace.

Atlas Valley didn't get that in her last start, the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on Derby Day. She was sixth of eight after the opening quarter-mile of the race, as favored Behaving Badly walked the opening quarter of the seven-furlong race in 23.05 seconds. Atlas Valley rallied to finish fourth, but given the slow early fractions, she essentially had no chance to make a meaningful impact. Pussycat Doll came from just off the pace to win the race and was followed by Behaving Badly and Bending Strings, who ran one-two early as part of the slow pace.

Although never a threat to the top three, Atlas Valley's race was deceptively good - and fast. She ran a 95 Beyer Speed Figure, a number competitive with the typical figures of Ever Elusive and Hot Storm.

Exiting a Grade 1 race, Atlas Valley would be expected to take action, but I think the public will still view her with some degree of skepticism, believing that the six-furlong distance of the Winning Colors might be too short for her. She has never raced at shorter than 6 1/2 furlongs and was a two-turn route horse at this time a year ago.

I think the cutback in distance will serve her well. Despite being an off-the-pace runner, she puts herself in contention with a quick turn move. What she really needs is pace, and she should get that with front-runners Reunited, Flying Falcon, and Hot Storm in the field.

As for Hot Storm, she comes into the race off a career-best 103 Beyer, which she earned when she won the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint. But she accomplished that big fig with a perfect trip; she raced loose on the lead with her ears pricked.

Hot Storm doesn't need a clear lead to be effective, but her chances of repeating that 103 Beyer off a long layoff and with pace pressure appears unlikely. And if she runs back to her regular figures in the low to mid-90's, she is no faster than Ever Elusive and Atlas Valley.

As for Ever Elusive, she ran well in finishing third in the Madison at Keeneland. After stalking the pace early, she was sent after victorious Dubai Escapade on the turn and grew tired in the stretch, losing by 6 1/2 lengths. Ever Elusive finished nearly 15 lengths in front of Atlas Valley, who ran ninth in that race.

My hope in supporting Atlas Valley is that the move to Churchill will result in a different outcome. Atlas Valley is 2-3-0 in 7 starts over the Churchill strip and has earned her top two speed figures over the surface. In addition to the 95 Beyer she posted in running fourth in the Humana Distaff, she ran a 101 Beyer in winning a seven-furlong allowance at Churchill last fall.

Gouldings Green a closing threat in Hanshin

The major stakes racing scene is relatively quiet Saturday, with only two graded stakes being run: the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont and the Grade 3 Hanshin Cup Handicap at Arlington.

The Hanshin drew a field of only five, but it did attract Gouldings Green, a game winner of the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill on Kentucky Oaks Day. Three wide throughout, he bravely outkicked 2005 Queen's Plate winner Wild Desert in a stirring stretch duel, winning by a head.

The heart he showed in winning the Alysheba makes him the choice to win the one-mile Hanshin. Look for Gouldings Green to run down Fifteen Rounds and With Distinction in the stretch.