04/27/2012 2:56PM

Emerald Downs: El Gran Bebe tests ability on dirt in sprint

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AUBURN, Wash. -- El Gran Bebe, a revelation on the grass in Northern California, and Cat On Base, who held Emerald Downs’ s 5 1/2-furlong track record for all of eight days after running 1:01.37 in his last start, are the horses to beat in Sunday’s co-featured ninth race, a second-level optional $25,000 claimer at six furlongs. First post is 2 p.m. Pacific.

El Gran Bebe was introduced to grass last fall at Golden Gate Fields and liked it so much, he won three consecutive races while rocketing up the class ladder. He started his roll with a front-running victory in a $12,500 claimer at one mile. That was followed in short order by gate-to-wire victories for $25,000, and, most impressively, in a first-level allowance against a formidable field.

So what is El Gran Bebe doing back at Emerald Downs, where a turf course was planned for but never completed? Kay Cooper, who runs day-to-day operations for trainer Jim Penney, is hoping El Gran Bebe’s rapid improvement on grass will translate to the sandy dirt at Emerald. There’s a big race down the road – the Grade 3 Longacres Mile – and eight furlongs is right in this horse’s wheelhouse.

El Gran Bebe, a homebred for Mike and Amy Feuerborn, made six starts at Emerald during his 3-year-old year and took a while to get his bearings. He was soundly beaten in the 1 1/16-mile Seattle Slew Handicap in his first stakes appearance, and was all out to prevail in a $30,000 maiden claimer in start No. 5. But El Gran Bebe found his stride in a big way in California, and the well-bred son of Friends Lake, from the stakes-winning dam Bianconi Baby, has a license to keep improving.

Cat On Base has been a consistent force in upper-level claiming races at Emerald the past two seasons and is just two weeks removed from a career-best effort on the second day of the meeting. His short-lived 5-1/2-furlong track record – shattered by Hollywood Harbor last weekend – earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 89, easily the fastest of his 19-race career.

Cat On Base will break from the No. 2 post in a field of six. Jennifer Whitaker, who was up for his record run April 14, will be back aboard, and Cat On Base figures to set the pace. Where will El Gran Bebe sit in his first start in nearly five months? After getting the hang of racing on grass, he should be a tiger in the final furlong.