06/15/2004 12:00AM

Dollase has colt playing 'catch-up'

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With the obvious exception of Smarty Jones, this year's 3-year-old crop has not distinguished itself, and the dearth of talent is particularly dramatic in California.

Since fall, the division has had seven graded stakes around two turns on dirt. Not a single winner of those races has won since. Ruler's Court (Norfolk Stakes), Action This Day (Breeders' Cup Juvenile), Lion Heart (Hollywood Futurity), St. Averil (Santa Catalina), Imperialism (San Rafael), Preachinatthebar (San Felipe), and Castledale (Santa Anita Derby) are a combined 0 for 16 since their brief moment of glory.

The dilemma has given hope to horsemen with unproven 3-year-olds. That includes trainer Craig Dollase, who admits "We're playing a little catch-up" with Bear in the Woods. Might as well, because it's not like there are any killers in the division. And with the $400,000 Swaps Stakes for 3-year-olds just a little more than three weeks away, Dollase is eager to see if Bear in the Woods can run long.

won his May 28 debut impressively, rallying from ninth in a turf sprint. A son of Formal Gold, he earned a creditable Beyer Speed Figure of 83, good enough to be considered a contender Thursday in a first-level allowance for 3-year-olds at Hollywood Park. A field of 11 entered the mile turf race, race 5 on the eight-race card, and Bear in the Woods is giving away plenty of experience. His main rivals include French import War Academy and the Bob Baffert-trained Quiet Cash and Sea of Silver.

The lineup is not particularly strong, which gives Bear in the Woods a chance despite his inexperience.

"Usually I do two sprints, and then a stretch-out," Dollase said. But there isn't time if Bear in the Woods wants to jump into the 3-year-old stakes scene. Owned by J. Paul Reddam, Bear in the Woods was nominated to the Affirmed on Saturday. Dollase chose the lesser of two evils by entering the allowance.

"I expect him to run well," said Dollase, though conceding that two turns and facing winners are concerns. Tender shins prevented the colt from starting at 2, but if he lives up to his potential on Thursday, he has a chance under Alex Solis. The best local horse may be , who finished well in his March 17 comeback and has trained well since.

War Academy will make his U.S. debut for trainer Laura de Seroux. Imported from France where he won and placed in two starts last year, he has worked well and should fire first time out.