05/29/2008 12:00AM

Elite Squadron shows strong form


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Only six weeks ago, Elite Squadron was dismissed at 38-1 in the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland. But after running a huge second in that race, then winning the Churchill Downs Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard, the colt suddenly is a force to be reckoned with in the national sprint division.

"Some horses, if they're not overraced, they'll get real good at times," said Jimmy Baker, who trains Elite Squadron for Tom Walters. "Obviously, right now is this horse's time. He's a more seasoned horse, more mature. It just seems like he's grown up and put his mind on business."

A businesslike mind-set surely will be required Saturday, when Elite Squadron makes his first start since his 4 1/2-length victory in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes. He will face five other sprinters, including Indian Chant and Kelly's Landing, in the 20th running of the Grade 3, $125,000 Aristides at Churchill.

"Indian Chant and Kelly's Landing are very accomplished horses," Baker said. "But as good as my horse ran last out, if he can run back to that kind of effort, I'd think they have me to worry about. My horse is doing super right now."

Javier Castellano will be in from New York to replace John Velazquez, who rode Elite Squadron in the Commonwealth and Chuchill Downs Stakes. Baker said a good performance in the Aristides likely would earn Elite Squadron, a 4-year-old by Officer, a trip to the Smile Sprint at Calder or the Triple Bend at Hollywood.

Indian Chant, first or second in 17 of 22 career starts, is the Churchill record holder for the six-furlong distance of the Aristides, having run it in 1:07.55 on closing day of the 2007 spring meet. Kelly's Landing, an earner of more than $1.8 million, is a former Churchill record holder whose main claim to fame is his victory in the 2007 Dubai Golden Shaheen.

The Grade 3 Aristides, the 10th of 11 races, will be the last of three straight stakes here Saturday. The $100,000 Dogwood Stakes is the eighth race, and the $100,000 Opening Verse Handicap is the ninth. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.

The bunching of stakes events almost has become standard operating procedure at Churchill. On Juneo14, a program of six stakes, led by the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, will be offered. The corollary to that policy is that no other stakes will be run here until June 28.

Opening Verse: International cast

An international flavor is quite evident in the Opening Verse, which shapes up as the best betting race of the Saturday card. Sovereign Award winner Cloudy's Knight could be a slight favorite in a field that includes a 7-year-old horse named Rosberg, a recent arrival from Dubai.

Rosberg, owned by Darley Stable and trained by Eoin Harty, is the lone supplemental entry among 12 older horses.

"I've had him about 30 days," Harty said. "He doesn't have any [allowance] conditions, and what we noticed is that he's never raced on the turf - and his mother was a champion in Europe, obviously on the grass."

Indeed, Rosberg is by A.P. Indy out of Bosra Sham, the 1996 champion 3-year-old filly in Europe.

"I'm just trying to find out where I am with this horse," Harty said. "He's very sound, very easy to train. Hopefully, he'll run on turf."

Otherwise, the horse to beat in the 1 1/16-mile Opening Verse is Cloudy's Knight, who capped a sensational 2007 by winning the Grade 1 Canadian International at Woodbine last October. Based in Chicago with trainer Frank Kirby, Cloudy's Knight reeled off seven straight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in ending his year, albeit all of them in longer races.

If Cloudy's Knight isn't back to midseason form, then the Opening Verse could fall any number of ways. Contenders include the 2007 winner, Therecomesatiger, along with Inca King, Yate's Black Cat, Seaside Retreat, and Bold Start.

Dogwood: Pace should be key

Clearly the most important race moving toward the Grade 3 Dogwood was the La Troienne Stakes, which also was part of the Derby undercard. Four of the seven Dogwood starters exit the La Troienne: Keep the Peace (second), Tiz to Dream (third), Alina (fourth), and Secret Gypsy (fifth).

Probably the key to the one-mile Dogwood is how the race unfolds. In the La Troienne, Secret Gypsy set a fast pace with Keep the Peace clinging to her outside; it certainly appears as if those two could hook up again.

If Secret Gypsy can benefit from the La Troienne, which was just her second career start, or if Keep the Peace can maintain the consistency she has shown in five prior races, then either one is highly eligible to just keep on going. But if they are to be caught and passed, then Alina, the runner-up behind Eight Belles in the Fantasy Stakes in April, appears the most likely to finish the job.