05/11/2012 2:53PM

Emerald Downs: Class Included the one to beat in Hastings Handicap

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AUBURN, Wash. – The heart of the Emerald Downs season begins Sunday with the first stakes race of the meeting and an undercard with entertainment value: 10 races, full fields, and a slew of promising handicapping angles. No question, it’s the best card of the meeting, just in time for Mother’s Day.

The main event, the $50,000 Hastings Handicap, lured just five runners, but the leading contenders – Class Included and Special Holiday – could put on quite a show for mom.

Class Included won three stakes races at Emerald last year during her 3-year-old season, and after an idle winter, she returned April 21 to take a no-conditions allowance race. But she didn’t just win, she dominated, with jockey Juan Gutierrez guiding her around the track without shifting into overdrive.

Class Included ran one of her best races in her second start of 2011, winning the 6 1/2-furlong Seattle Handicap by three lengths. She appears to be sitting on another stellar effort in her second outing this year, breezing a quick five furlongs for trainer Jim Penney on Monday. She looms a short-priced favorite in the six-furlong Hastings.

With only five in the field, post positions might not be a factor, though Class Included, starting from the inside gate, will need clear sailing to track down speed merchants Elusive Noise and Carrabelle Harbor. Class Included does her best running from a couple of lengths off the pace. Elusive Noise held her off in the one-mile Irish Day Handicap last June. Carrabelle Harbor bested Class Included in the 1 1/16-mile Kent Handicap a month later.

While the presumptive division leader isn’t invincible, she’s always in the mix, finishing first or second in each of her 10 starts.

Special Holiday has a lesser track record (just six career starts) but a similar nose for the winner’s circle. A homebred for the late trainer Bud Klokstad and his wife Billie, Special Holiday won a $75,000 sprint stakes on the California fair circuit last June and wasn’t overmatched in two starts against older horses. She’ll be making her first start for trainer Frank Lucarelli and owner David Taylor, who purchased Special Holiday at the Klokstad dispersal sale last month.

Elusive Noise and Carrabelle Harbor could have a say in the outcome. Elusive Noise was the sharper of the two when they met April 21, but after putting away her front-running rival, Elusive Noise couldn’t turn back Class Included. If the speed horses hook up again, the result could be more of the same.