01/20/2006 12:00AM

First route among several hurdles Keagan faces

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Keagan looks to affirm his position atop the local 3-year-old ranks in Sunday's $40,000 Rattlesnake at Turf Paradise, but it isn't going to be easy. The one-mile race is Keagan's first shot at a trip beyond a sprint, and he faces several who have pressed him before and at least one new shooter.

But even with those hurdles, Keagan is the horse to beat. Trained by Eric Kruljac, he has continued to develop the past half year. After three initial tries against high-priced maiden claimers in Southern California, Keagan came to Turf Paradise and was twice a close second to winners in October. He then powered home to get his first win in the Fool the Experts on Nov. 28. He parlayed that to another rallying win in the Arizona Juvenile on Dec. 26. Keagan rallied from well back to just get up and beat two horses he faces again Sunday, finishing a neck in front of Mining Gold and 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Hey Slick.

Trained by Sam Aiton, Mining Gold has more speed than the likely favorite, but also makes his first attempt at a route. In the Arizona Juvenile, Mining Gold prompted the pace, took over on the far turn, was two lengths clear in midstretch but just couldn't quite keep Keagan at bay.

The scary new face is Win to Win. Like Keagan, he is trained by Kruljac. Win to Win debuted in a maiden sprint on Jan. 10, jumped right out to the lead and drew off to win with complete authority, under wraps, by nearly nine lengths. His 82 Beyer Speed Figure is easily the best in the field. The hurdles are significant - first time against winners and first time going long - but there may be significant talent here.

Hey Slick and Levelled have both been prominent before against this caliber and merit respect as well. Hey Slick finished furiously to be third in the Arizona Juvenile and may relish this longer trip. Levelled was well behind Keagan, Mining Gold, and Hey Slick in that race, but before that rallied to win the Arizona Breeders Futurity on Dec. 3.