05/28/2011 10:46AM

Emerald: Auburn first stakes test for 3-year-olds


AUBURN, Wash. – Still early in Emerald Downs’s 82-day meeting, the track’s 3-year-olds have yet to separate themselves in any meaningful way. The winnowing begins Monday, when a field of nine is scheduled to run 6 1/2 furlongs in the $50,000 Auburn Handicap. The Memorial Day program begins at 2 p.m. Pacific, and the Auburn is race No. 6 on an expanded 11-race card.

Couldabenthewhisky, a dominating winner in his 2011 debut at Hastings, is the division leader on the strength of his effort in Vancouver and his three stakes victories at Emerald last summer. He figures to attract the favorite’s share of the betting, even as handicappers weigh the merits of other contenders, including Mack’s Gold Bullet, who’s undefeated in two starts; Golden Gate shipper Zayda, eighth in the California Derby; and promising last-out winners Showme Yourfriends, Seattle Sniper, Slim Pickins, and Hayjax. Toss in Winter Warlock, who won a stakes in 2010 and placed in three others, and there will be wagering options for everyone.

A fast pace is assured. Mack’s Gold Bullet led all the way in his two victories last year, the second coming in the restricted Dennis Dodge Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs. He drew the inside post for Monday’s race, leaving jockey Javier Matias with little choice but to hustle Mack’s Gold Bullet into contention or risk getting walled off by the speed horses to his outside.

Those rivals are formidable. Seattle Sniper, breaking from post 6, recorded a field-best 81 Beyer Speed Figure in his final tuneup for the Auburn. Winter Warlock, in post 8, led gate to wire in the six-furlong Premio Esmeralda Stakes last August. Hayjax, breaking from the outside, cruised to a front-running victory in a first-level allowance in his first start of the year.

Couldabenthewhisky is fast, too, but trainer Bonnie Jenne’s stable star doesn’t need the lead. He won the restricted Strong Ruler Stakes on the lead last July, but his subsequent victories in the one-mile WTBA Lads and the 1 1/16-mile Gottstein Futurity were accomplished from off the pace.

As good as Couldabenthewhisky was in 2010, winning 4 of 6 starts and $91,602, he might be better in 2011. He passed his first test with remarkable ease, circling the field in the Jim Coleman Province Stakes at Hastings to win going away. If he replicates that effort in the Auburn, the 3-year-old picture will come into sharper focus almost instantly.