04/18/2007 12:00AM

Few willing to face NJC Cap's big two

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CHICAGO - Perhaps the only thing standing between Todd Pletcher and another sweep of Hawthorne's two graded stakes for older horses is a van that on Wednesday was headed west from Laurel Park bound for Chicago. Its equine passenger, Sweetnorthernsaint, has made the drive before, traveling here about a year ago to bury the field in the Illinois Derby, and on Saturday, he and the Pletcher-trained Master Command are the stars of the show in the National Jockey Club Handicap

In fact, they are about the entire show. Nominations for the NJC Cap were somewhat light, and the prospective field has followed suit. As of Wednesday, Hawthorne listed only the big two plus locally based Courthouse as probable starters in the race, and racing officials might be satisfied if they wound up with a four-horse field.

The picture is a little rosier for the Sixty Sails, the NJC Cap's female counterpart. Pletcher scratched Mo Cuishle from Wednesday's Doubledogdare at Keeneland and said she would start instead at Hawthorne, where she will certainly be favored. John Velazquez has the mount on both Master Command and Mo Cuishle, said Pletcher, who has won the Sixty Sails two years in a row, and swept the two stakes in 2005.

Besides Mo Cuishle, the Sixty Sails is expected to include Coolwind, Ketteoneup, My Chickadee, and Rolling Sea, the probable second betting choice.

Mike Trombetta, Sweetnorthernsaint's trainer, said he circled the NJC Cap as a logical spot some time ago.

"It was just a logical progression off his last race, being as he's run there before," Trombetta said.

That last race, a minor stakes at Laurel on March 20, produced an easy four-length win by Sweetnorthernsaint, his first victory of the year. Master Command is 2 for 2 in 2007, having scored easy wins in the Mineshaft and New Orleans handicaps at the Fair Grounds meet.

Razo succeeds out of town

Eddie Razo might look like the same guy who long ago established himself as a fixture on the Chicago circuit. But Razo added a layer of substance to his career this winter, proving at least to himself - and probably to others - that he could succeed outside Chicago.

Razo, 41, has always ridden here year-round, but he took the plunge this past winter and moved his tack to Oaklawn Park.

"Really, I was always kind of scared to go somewhere," Razo said Tuesday afternoon. "I was afraid people just rode me because I was here so long. I really didn't want to go down to Oaklawn and then come back in the middle of Hawthorne."

There was no need for that. Razo took an early lead in the Oaklawn jockey standings and wound up fifth with 35 wins, only six less than second-place John Jacinto, a meet that exceeded Razo's best hopes upon leaving Chicago.

"I think I proved to myself that I can go somewhere and if I work hard, I can do good," Razo said.

Razo flew back to Chicago on Sunday, rode some on Monday, and plans to swing fully back into action this weekend.

Right behind Razo in the Oaklawn standings was another Chicagoan, Larry Sterling, who rode 34 winners at the meet, which concluded on Saturday.

Mighty Rule sharp but in tough

It seems like a good bet that trainer Christine Janks will have another strong Arlington meet, but at Hawthorne this spring the Janks barn has had little luck, sending out seven second-place finishes and just one winner from 27 starters.

One of the many runners-up, Mighty Rule, is back in action on Friday, and figures to be favored in a second-level sprint allowance restricted to Illinois-breds.

Mighty Rule debuted at Arlington late last summer and finished a distant seventh of 12, albeit after a difficult trip, but he was much better after moving to Hawthorne, winning his maiden and an entry-level allowance in quick succession. Janks put him away after the second of those wins in early October, and Mighty Rule returned March 30 with another strong performance, a close second of 11 in a race run under the same conditions as Friday's.

The concern with Mighty Rule is his inside draw. He may have enough speed to lead all the way, but there is other pace to his outside, and Hawthorne wasn't as front-runner friendly last week as it has been at other points this season.