04/12/2012 4:09PM

Emerald Downs: Olympic Lights returns to favorite venue for sprint feature

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AUBURN, Wash. – Saturday’s feature race at Emerald Downs, a 5 1/2-furlong sprint for $15,000 claimers, attracted an evenly matched field of nine older sprinters. Olympic Lights, who has 12 career Emerald victories, figures to be a popular favorite, but with most of the runners coming off extended layoffs, it could be tricky for handicappers to zero in on the winner. The feature is the seventh of eight races on a program that begins at 2 p.m. Pacific.

Olympic Lights is a classic horse for the course – he has finished first or second in 18 of 28 career starts at Emerald Downs. He doesn’t travel well, however; he is 1 for 13 at other tracks, and his trip to Portland Meadows last fall was a study in frustration. He gave lackluster efforts while finishing off the board in two starts before trainer Charles Essex turned him out for the rest of the winter. But Olympic Lights has worked steadily for his comeback, capped by a quick five-furlong move last Friday.

Olympic Lights was a consistent force last summer, the first horse to the wire in five of his 10 starts. But he was unlucky, too, getting disqualified from one victory and missing out on two others because of trips that were less than ideal. When he’s right, Olympic Lights is a formidable late-running sprinter. If he can avoid rush-hour traffic around the turn, he should be tough to beat going 5 1/2 furlongs.

Troy Stillwell has the call on Olympic Lights, a welcome development for the veteran rider. Stillwell, 45, is attempting another career comeback after missing the 2011 season because of a back injury.

Among the other leading contenders, Howmuchisit, Cat On Base, Go With Gusto, and Zagreus figure most prominently. Trainer Tim McCanna claimed Howmuchisit for $8,000 out of his last start at Santa Anita on March 31 and shipped him back to Emerald, where he scored an impressive maiden victory in 2010. Howmuchisit is quick from the blocks, maybe a step faster than his rivals Saturday. If Emerald newcomer William Antongeorgi III gets Howmuchisit to break sharply, he can be a handful.

Cat On Base and Go With Gusto are a lot like Olympic Lights – they have an affinity for the sandy Emerald racing surface. Cat On Base has finished in the money in 13 of 18 local starts for trainer Howard Belvoir. Go With Gusto is 13 for 17, with most of those starts for his current trainer, Roy Lumm.