08/28/2008 12:00AM

El Cajon lures talented trio


DEL MAR, Calif. - Cherokee Artist has been keeping good company of late. He earned his maiden win at Churchill Downs a few hours before Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby, then leaped straight into stakes races from Ohio to Delaware to West Virginia. Earlier this week, the peripatetic colt was flown to California, on the same plane with Travers Stakes winner Colonel John, Virginia Derby winner Gio Ponti, and Ballerina Stakes winner Intangaroo.

His trainer, Graham Motion, decided to send Cherokee Artist west to try and find softer company in the $100,000 El Cajon Stakes, a listed stakes that headlines the final Friday program at Del Mar. But even though this one-mile race is not graded, it drew two other accomplished colts, Leonides and the comebacking Slew's Tiznow, in the field of nine.

Cherokee Artist has just 1 win in 5 starts, but he has finished second three times, including the Ohio Derby and Delaware Park's Barbaro Stakes. He most recently was fourth in the West Virginia Derby after moving into the teeth of a hot pace.

"I kind of had this race in the back of my mind since he ran last time," Motion said from Fair Hill, Md., where he is based. "All of a sudden at this time of year, there's less and less races for 3-year-olds.

"I looked at the Pennsylvania Derby, but I'm not convinced he wants a mile and an eighth. I wanted a softer spot. And he handled the Polytrack when he ran at Keeneland the first time. He still has allowance conditions, but it's hard to run him in a race worth $30,000 or $40,000 when he's knocking on the door against graded stakes horses."

Garrett Gomez, who has ridden Cherokee Artist in his last two starts, has the mount.

Leonides, a two-time stakes winner, is making his first start in two months, but he has trained sharply in the interim. His trainer, Vladimir Cerin, thought about running Leonides on the turf earlier this meet, but was not satisfied with his workouts over the local grass, even though the times were fast. Cerin decided to wait for the El Cajon because it is the meet's only two-turn stakes race solely for 3-year-olds on the main track.

"He's trained really well," Cerin said. "He always gives everything he's got. His last race was really gutsy."

Leonides won the 6 1/2-furlong Captain Squire Handicap at Hollywood Park in his last start despite a bumping match down the stretch. In seven starts, he has finished first or second six times.

Slew's Tiznow is making his first start since October, when he finished second in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, his lone start on a synthetic surface. Doug O'Neill now trains Slew's Tiznow.