06/29/2004 11:00PM

Easy Grades returns at age 5

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Easy Grades once bordered on being a marquee name, a horse fast enough to finish second in the San Rafael Stakes and Santa Anita Derby and earn a berth in the 2002 Kentucky Derby.

But ever since he ran 13th in the 128th Derby, Easy Grades has rarely been mentioned among the sport's elites, having won just once in eight subsequent starts. His star could start rising again Friday, however, when the 5-year-old gelding returns from a layoff and makes his first start for trainer Jimmy Baker in the feature race at Churchill Downs, a $52,900 allowance route.

is unraced since April 2003, when his career reached a nadir with a 10th-place finish in an allowance race at Santa Anita. Trained then by Ted West, Easy Grades had to be laid up with active ulcers and hoof ailments, leading his owners, Desperado Stables, to try something different by moving him elsewhere.

"I've been trying to work him into fitness and also feel him out a little bit," said Baker, who assumed Easy Grades's training in early May. "When you run long against good horses after a layoff, you'd better have them fit. I hope I've got him fit."

Baker said Easy Grades appears to be in fine physical shape "because the little things that kept him from running really weren't all that serious. They're the type of things that only time can help."

Easy Grades, with Robby Albarado named to ride, will start from post 8 in a field of nine scheduled to run in the Friday feature, a second-level allowance named the Holy Bull purse. One of his main challengers could be Gran Prospect, one of four 3-year-olds in the field. Gran Prospect has faced some of the best horses in his class - most notably Smarty Jones, who finished far ahead of him in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in March - and should be competitive when racing against older rivals for the first time Friday.

Other logical contenders include , both of whom went through their first allowance conditions at this meet, and Real Trooper, a front-running threat for Rafael Bejarano.

Eleven races - one more than normal - are carded for the meet's final Friday, with first post at 2:45 p.m. Eastern. Churchill also has tacked on several extra races for the balance of the spring meet: 11 races will be run on Saturday, 12 on Sunday, and 11 on Monday, closing day.