05/15/2008 11:00PM

Dixie Chatter returns: First stop Barrera

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Dixie Chatter someday will remind the racing world how good he is. First he needs to make it to the starting gate.

Dixie Chatter won the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes last fall in his fourth career start, and is undefeated since. Unfortunately, he also is unraced. For the past seven months, a series of misfortunes prevented the promising colt from doing anything other than train.

That is, until Sunday. Dixie Chatter returns at Hollywood Park in a Grade 3 sprint for 3-year-olds that is below lofty goals that once seemed within his grasp. But who is complaining? Trainer Richard Mandella is just happy Dixie Chatter is back racing again.

The question posed to Mandella before the $100,000 Lazaro Barrera Memorial Stakes was simple: Does he expect Dixie Chatter to deliver a top effort in his first start since September?

"Yes, I expect it," Mandella said. "That doesn't mean it's going to happen."

In fact, Mandella and owner Herman Sarkowsky have learned that with Dixie Chatter there are no guarantees. After emerging as the top 2-year-old out West last fall, he never got going again.

Dixie Chatter went to Monmouth Park for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, got sick, and scratched. He returned home to point for the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood. Then he bruised a bone in a back ankle.

"Being fresh, and not training because he got sick, he probably kicked a wall," Mandella explained. No problem, the spring classics were still ahead.

But when Dixie Chatter returned to training in February and smoked three furlongs in 35 seconds in his first work, Mandella called off the plan. "He went too fast, and he was a little off for a day or two," Mandella said. "I just [postponed] his workouts for another week or two, maybe more because of my apprehension than anything."

Now the Triple Crown is two-thirds finished, and Dixie Chatter finally returns to action for Mandella in an elongated sprint.

"He did get better at two turns, but from all that we can see, it looks like seven-eighths would fit him pretty good right now," Mandella said.

Although Dixie Chatter is the only Grade 1 winner in the field, a case can be made for all six runners.

Grade 2 winner Salute the Sarge is back at his preferred sprint distance. Rapidity will make his U.S. debut after a 13-day span in England during which he won four races. Afleet Ruler is shortening to one turn, and Wind's Legacy returns from a layoff necessitated by sore shins. It is an interesting group, and includes only one front-runner, Two Step Salsa.

Julio Canani trains Two Step Salsa, who scored impressive main-track wins in his first two starts before switching surfaces for a nighttime turf stakes April 25. He is by Petionville, whose offspring are less effective on grass.

"I know that, but he would have won if hadn't gone nuts in the gate," Canani said.

Two Step Salsa washed out, became temperamental, and appeared uncomfortable on the turf, but still was a clear-cut second. He is flattered by the pace scenario of the Barrera.

"This is a nice horse, and he's not speed-crazy," Canani said. "He probably will fall into the lead."

Salute the Sarge has won 4 of 8, and backs up to a sprint after finishing seventh in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Lexington Stakes on April 19 at Keeneland. Eric Guillot trains Salute the Sarge, whose six sprints produced 4 wins and 2 seconds.

None of the Barrera starters were busier in February than Rapidity, who won four races on four synthetic surfaces in England from Feb. 3 to Feb. 15. Purchased by La Canada Stables, the colt initially was unimpressive for trainer Jack Carava.

"I wasn't even going to enter him if he hadn't breezed the way he did [Wednesday]," Carava said. "His works were fast, but I didn't like the way he was finishing. I thought, maybe he was just getting bored."

To remedy that, Carava worked Rapidity in company early this week, and, Carava said, "He inhaled the horse and drew off." Although Rapidity was a front-runner overseas, he is not expected to be quick enough to make the lead Sunday.

Wind's Legacy is 2 for 2 at Hollywood Park, and has a solid workout pattern for trainer Jennie Green. He was aiming for 3-year-old stakes during the winter meet at Santa Anita when he was derailed by shin problems.