01/23/2006 12:00AM

Expectations rise with each Happy Hunting win

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Daytime Promise, winning the Busanda, could run in the Ashland.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - It is perhaps a bit premature to project Happy Hunting as a force in the handicap division this year, but with each performance he is showing marked improvement.

Given his terrific bloodlines and the fact he is in the care of one of the best horsemen in the game - Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey - Happy Hunting is certainly a horse to follow as he faces better competition throughout the year.

A 5-year-old son of Seeking the Gold out of the Grade 1-winning mare Furlough, Happy Hunting made it four wins in a row when he won Saturday's Grade 3 by 1 1/4 lengths over Evening Attire. After dueling for the opening quarter-mile with Mr. Whitestone, Happy Hunting settled nicely behind Mr. Whitestone before making the lead around the far turn. He displayed some resiliency in the stretch after Mr. Whitestone came back on him from the inside.

Happy Hunting, who is now 5 for 9 lifetime, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.56 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 89.

"I was tickled to death the way he ran," McGaughey said Monday morning from California, where he was to attend the Eclipse Awards ceremony that night. "Sometimes when I put those blinkers on he wants to be a little aggressive. The other day he settled in behind that horse, and when he wanted him, he had him."

McGaughey said Happy Hunting's success has been gratifying for him considering Happy Hunting suffered a fractured cannon bone just before his 3-year-old season and didn't make it to the races until the summer of his 4-year-old year.

On Monday, Happy Hunting was vanned to Payson Park, a training center in Florida. McGaughey said he would continue to bring Happy Hunting along slowly, eyeing races like the Stymie Handicap on March 4 or the Excelsior Handicap on April 1 rather than a more prestigious event.

"I'd like to gradually bring him along instead of throw him to the wolves," McGaughey said.

McGaughey's only hesitation about committing to the Stymie, run at 1 1/16 miles over Aqueduct's inner track, is that he is considering Philanthropist for that spot, too. Philanthropist won the Queens County over the inner track in December and then finished seventh as the favorite in the Hal's Hope at Gulfstream.

Contessa has high hopes for 'Promise'

Fifteen years ago, Gary Contessa won his only Grade 1 race when 8-1 shot Do It With Style upset the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Contessa said he is hopeful he may have another filly talented enough to take back to this year's Ashland.

It was only the listed that Daytime Promise won Sunday, but Contessa was so impressed with how she ran that he is already thinking Ashland. Daytime Promise, a daughter of Five Star Day, rallied swiftly off a pedestrian pace and won the Busanda with just a vigorous hand ride from jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr.

"I'm not a guy who says too many positive things about horses, because I think it's a jinx," Contessa said Monday morning. "But from day one I have just liked blowing the whistle on her. I have so much confidence in this filly. I know it's all about whether or not they stay sound. I know numbers, and I know this filly could be a graded-stakes horse if she stays sound. Right now she came out of the race great."

Daytime Promise ran a mile and 70 yards in 1:43.49 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 87. She is now 2 for 3 and will most likely make her next start in the $65,000 Busher Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 26.

It would not be uncommon for Contessa to sell a talented filly like Daytime Promise. But since owners Darlene Bilinski and Harry Patten are breeders, Daytime Promise is not for sale.

"We are going to keep her," said Contessa, who did sell Peace Rules after his first start. "I'm going to have the opportunity to make her something."

In her maiden win, Daytime Promise rallied from well off the pace with the benefit of fast fractions. Sunday, she was much closer to the pace, largely because of the slow early fractions.

"When you get in a situation when there's a lot more of a real pace, I think she's going to be a lot more powerful," Contessa said. "Her closing kick is so incredible, but you don't get to showcase it when they go 49-and-change to the half."

Contessa won two races on Sunday's card, giving him 29 for the meet. Todd Pletcher is second with 15.

Liquid Romance heads feature

A full field of New York-breds who may not be ready for open allowance or claiming company make up Wednesday's $46,000 feature race at 1 1/16 miles. The race is open to New York-breds eligible for their second-level allowance condition. Those who have won that condition can run provided they are offered for a $25,000 claiming tag.

Liquid Romance is the horse to beat. He comes off a 7 1/4-length win in a first-level New York-bred allowance race. Both of his career victories have come in front-running fashion over the inner track, and he could be the main speed in this full field of 12. Pablo Morales rides for trainer Tony Dutrow.

Flashy David won his first- and second-level allowance New York-bred conditions, but was walloped when he faced open-company allowance foes. He can run in this race because he is being offered for $25,000. Flashy David goes out for trainer Leah Gyarmati, who is having a sensational meet with a record of 7-7-7 from 33 starters.

Notadroptodrink has run three solid races since being given a two-month freshening by trainer Dominic Galluscio. He comes off two straight wins and is coupled in the wagering with Lethimthinkhesboss, who ran third at this level last out.

Heathrow and Charimount are also contenders in this field.