12/11/2003 12:00AM

Distance may deny Houston Shuffle bonus


PORTLAND, Ore. - There are some nice pots to shoot for at Portland Meadows on Saturday, when five stakes will highlight the Oregon-bred Day activities. Nobody, however, will be aiming higher than trainer Jonathan Nance and his partner, Allen Floyd.

Nance and Floyd own the undefeated juvenile Houston Shuffle, who will be gunning not only for the winner's share of the $28,345-added Oregon Futurity, but also for a bonus of $25,000.

Houston Shuffle, a son of Houston who was purchased as a weanling from the 2001 Oregon Thoroughbred Breeders Association sale for just $3,200, became eligible for the bonus by winning the six-furlong OTBA Sales Stakes by almost four lengths on Nov. 1. He came back to score a 1 1/4-length triumph in the six-furlong Bill Wineberg Stakes on Nov. 15, and he would be odds-on in the Oregon Futurity if that race were at six furlongs as well.

The Futurity, however, is at a mile, and therein lies the rub.

"I'm not sure he's really a miler type," admitted Nance. "I suspect his best lick will always be going short."

The trainer is hardly taking a defeatist attitude, however.

"He might be good enough to win anyway, especially if things go his way," Nance said. "He is very quick out of the gate, and I don't think anyone can go with him early. If they try, they won't be around at the end. Their only chance will be to try to run him down late, and if he can relax on the lead and go the first half-mile in 47 seconds or more, it won't be so easy to run him down."

Nance said that Houston Shuffle is coming into the Futurity exactly as planned. Nance withheld Houston Shuffle from the Nov. 29 Columbia River Stakes, for which he would have been favored, in order to have a fresh horse for the big race. Houston Shuffle worked a leisurely five furlongs last Sunday, and Nance feels he is primed for a peak effort.

Maiden may pose threat

Houston Shuffle's most intriguing challenger is Top Victory. Though still a maiden after three starts, Top Victory was a creditable fourth in the Bill Wineberg and a fast-finishing second to the undefeated Washington-bred Runaway Briartic in the recent Columbia River Stakes at six furlongs.

"I thought he moved too early in the Wineberg, then he was too far back after he missed the break in the Columbia River," said trainer Roger Stevenson. "We'll try to find the happy medium this time."

Top Victory, a son of the hot Washington sire He's Tops, lagged 13 lengths behind the front-running Runaway Briartic in the Columbia River, but closed smartly under a patient ride from Scott Saito to be beaten just two lengths.

"I thought it was a very encouraging effort," said Stevenson. "It certainly looked like he wanted to go farther, and that could be the key. It seems like every year the major contenders come into this race without having routed, so the question becomes 'Will he route?'

"My horse is still a little green, and it's hard to be certain about his quality at this point, but I do believe he'll route. I've got to think he has a chance."

Trainer has roots in Futurity

It would hardly be unprecedented for a maiden to win the Oregon Futurity. Jack and Cookie Root trained four Futurity winners before passing on the family training duties to their son, Ben Root, and two of their winners won the race as maidens: Radiant Ruckus in 1995 and Fit to Bet in 2001.

"My dad calls Radiant Ruckus's win his proudest training achievement, because [Radiant Ruckus] never won another race," said Ben Root. "My mom trained Fit to Bet when he beat Lethal Grande, who was clearly a better horse.

"The point is that the Futurity is usually a wide-open race, because you've got babies stretching out for the first time. Anything can happen."

The younger Root hopes to follow in his parents' footsteps on Saturday, when he will saddle Might E Man in the Futurity. Might E Man, a long-striding son of Baquero, is still a maiden after three starts, but he finished second in the OTBA Sales Stakes and fifth in the Wineberg after breaking slowly on both occasions.

"We've been wanting to stretch him out, partly because we think he wants the distance and partly because he'll have a better chance to overcome a slow start," said Root.

"I've been pointing him toward this race the whole meeting. The Futurity is what we breed for, and it is always the first goal for any horse we train."