11/18/2008 12:00AM

Etched intriguing off absence

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Etched, who wowed observers winning his first two starts as a 2-year-old last fall, returns from a layoff of more than nine months and will be the key point of interest on Thursday's program at the Big A.

Etched was 26-1 in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager on the strength of a blowout win in the Nashua Stakes on Aqueduct's main track last fall. A homebred from the Darley Stable, Etched returns in Thursday's third race, a $48,000 allowance and optional claimer at a mile for nonwinners of three races.

After winning his maiden debut and the Nashua for Kiaran McLaughlin without so much as drawing a deep breath, Etched was "promoted" to Godolphin Stable and sent to Dubai, where he ran a disappointing fourth in the UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 14. He was taken out of training soon after.

Etched returned to the U.S. in late summer.

"He can be a difficult horse to train - he's got a mind of his own," said McLaughlin. "First time out he won easy, and when he pulled up he went to the gap to go home. My exercise rider, Lorenzo Morales, has done a great job with him. We think he's a nice horse with a bright future. He looks great and has loads of ability."

Etched will also be reunited with Alan Garcia, who was aboard for both of his victories last year. He breaks from post 5 in a field of eight, which also includes Helsinki, the third-place finisher in last year's Travers and Brooklyn Handicap. Helsinki has been sidelined for nearly a year.

Helsinki ended a busy 3-year-old season with a fifth in the Discovery Handicap here for trainer Nick Zito, and returns 361 days later with a trainer change to John Terranova.

A deep closer who may require a bit more ground than a mile, Helsinki was scratched from Saturday's Stuyvesant Handicap in the mud in favor of this spot.

Others, with more recent form, are Screen to Screen and Papa Bear, both last-out allowance winners at Belmont; Amped, fourth in the mud on opening day; and My Golden Opinion, who has been freshened since chasing Discovery-bound Lieutenant Ron in the slop nearly seven weeks ago.

The David Jacobson-trained entry of Last Wave and El Chile Dog are both in for the optional $35,000 claiming price.