06/28/2004 11:00PM

Firecracker gets action going

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The final handful of stakes races that will usher out the Churchill Downs spring meet will start Saturday with the highest grade, largest purse, and biggest field of the weekend: The Firecracker Breeders' Cup Handicap, a Grade 2 race with a $250,000 purse, is expected to attract at least 10 older turf horses for its 15th running.

Among the expected starters in the Firecracker is a horse who has made a small fortune running in one-mile turf races in Kentucky in the last year: Perfect Soul, winner of the Keeneland Shadwell Mile and Maker's Mark Mile. Like those Keeneland fixtures, the Firecracker also is run at a mile on turf.

Other expected starters in the Firecracker include Senor Swinger, who was especially sharp in winning the Opening Verse here June 12, and the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Millennium Dragon. Other probables include Great Bloom, Majestic Thief, Mr. Krisley, Quantum Merit, and Royal Spy.

Smaller fields are likely for the 2 year-old races that follow.

The Grade 3, $100,000 Debutante Stakes will have the unbeaten Sweet Miss El and perhaps four or five more 2-year-old fillies for its 104th running on Sunday, while the Grade 3, $150,000 Bashford Manor Stakes on Monday's closing-day card is expected to get a similar number of colts and geldings, led by unbeaten Lunarpal.

Azeri goes half-mile in 45.60 seconds

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year who has lost her last three races, had her first workout since a last-place finish in the June 19 Ogden Phipps Handicap, drilling a half-mile Tuesday in 45.60 seconds over a fast Churchill strip.

Azeri's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said Azeri "bled significantly" in the Phipps but that he "will take precautions the next time she runs," which is expected to be in the Grade 1 Go for Wand Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 1. "It's a fixable deal," Lukas said.

In another notable Tuesday work, Kitten's Joy, the standout 3-year-old turf horse who is scheduled to run next in the July 10 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, had an easy breeze over the turf, going five furlongs in 1:04.40.

Trainers' race a tight one

Whereas the jockey and owner races at the spring meet essentially were decided weeks ago, this final weekend should be an exciting one in helping to decide a hotly contested trainers' race.

Tom Amoss, with 27 wins from just 72 starters, entered the final six-day stretch that began Wednesday with a one-win margin over Steve Asmussen (26-125) and Dale Romans (26-132).

Amoss, however, will miss a lot of action, since he is on a family vacation to Mississippi's Gulf Coast with his wife, Colleen, and two daughters, and is not scheduled to return until Monday. He said the vacation was planned long ago and that he had no idea at the time that he would be in contention for the title.

Romans tied for the spring-meet title three straight years (2000-2002) before winning outright last year with a record 39 victories. One of his ties, in 2002, was with Amoss.

In the other categories, Ken and Sarah Ramsey long ago wrapped up the owner title, while Rafael Bejarano has virtually clinched his first Churchill jockey crown.

Mayo on the Side may go in Gardenia

Mayo on the Side, fourth as a huge favorite in the June 19 Chicago Breeders' Cup at Arlington, came out of the race "without excuses, injury, illness, or anything else," said Ian Wilkes, assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger. "That's just horse racing, I guess."

Mayo On the Side, who defeated Azeri in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on May 1, is back with Nafzger's satellite string at the Skylight Training Center. She is a prime candidate to run in the premier race of the Ellis Park meet, the Grade 3, $200,000 Gardenia Stakes on Aug. 7.