05/24/2007 11:00PM

Flamethrowintexan makes his return in FSN

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AUBURN, Wash. - The wait is almost over.

Flamethrowintexan, who won last year's Grade 3 Longacres Mile en route to horse of the meeting honors at Emerald Downs, is scheduled make his first start of the year in Monday's $45,000 FSN Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Trainer Jim Penney would have preferred to bring his stable star back in a custom-made allowance race, but he was not so naive as to think that his colleagues would fill such a race for him. He therefore prepared the now 6-year-old Flamethrowintexan for his yearly debut with a series of long, fast workouts that culminated with a six-furlong move from the gate in 1:09.60 last Sunday.

"If we were going to have to bring him back on this level, we had to make sure he was fit," Penney said. "Now we're sure. He went very fast, but he did it handily and he finished strongly. He's ready."

All the same, the front-running Flamethrowintexan had to settle for second when he came out in the same race last year, and he will meet a great deal of other speed Monday. Chief among his pace rivals are The Great Face, who equaled the North American dirt record for 5 1/2 furlongs here on opening night, and Westsideclyde, who outdueled The Great Face en route to a third-place finish in the six-furlong Seattle Handicap on May 6.

"I'm not so much concerned about the other speed," Penney said. "Tex is so quick and catty out of the gate that he usually ends up in front, but he doesn't mind dueling for the lead and he can even rate a little if we ask him to do that. Still, this will be a tough race for him. He got beat going short last year, and he will be meeting a tough bunch of horses. Even so, I'm looking forward to running him."

Penney said Flamethrowintexan will likely follow the same schedule in 2007 that led to his Longacres Mile win last year, when he prepped for the Mile in the FSN, the Budweiser-Emerald at a mile, and the Mt. Rainier at nine furlongs.

"It worked out well last year, so we'll try to do the same thing," he said.

FSN pace may benefit Starbird Road

One of the most interesting side questions to be answered Monday is whether Flamethrowintexan, who ranks as the most accomplished horse on the grounds, will be favored over Starbird Road, who has been nearly unbeatable in sprints.

Starbird Road suffered his last loss in the 2006 renewal of the FSN, in which he raced impossibly wide after breaking from the outside post in a field of 10. Since then, he has won five in a row, including three stakes, all by daylight margins. The 6-year-old Starbird Road, who usually comes from just off the leaders, figures to have a sweet pace setup Monday, and trainer Sharon Ross reported that he is coming up to the race in mid-season form after winning the Seattle Handicap three weeks ago.

"This race comes up just in time because he has been getting wild," she said. "He is coming up into this one as good as any of his past races, and he is anxious to get out there and do his thing."

Starbird Road worked five furlongs in 1:02.40 on Sunday, the same day Flamethrowintexan scorched six furlongs in 1:09.60, but Ross said the relatively slow move was by design.

"He worked a strong half-mile [48 seconds] the previous Sunday, so I wasn't looking for more speed in his most recent work," she said. "The nice thing about this horse is that he'll do whatever you want him to do, both in the morning and in his races. What he did in his last work was just what we wanted."

Tollet entry may offer value in FSN

With Flamethrowintexan and Starbird Road attracting the lion's share of the public's backing, it is more than possible that the Bill Tollett-trained entry of Spanish Highway and Keagan will represent real value in the FSN.

Don't forget that the 6-year-old Spanish Highway won last year's renewal of the FSN, upsetting Flamethrowintexan by a neck at odds of 6-1. He came into that race off a closing second in the six-furlong Seattle Handicap, and he comes into Monday's affair off a similar closing second to Izzacopy in a six-furlong optional claiming race on May 12 that was run in a sizzling 1:07.60.

"We thought he ran really well that day," assistant trainer David Tollett said. "No one was going to catch Izzacopy after he got lose on the lead, but he closed a lot of ground to get second and he figures to get a totally different pace setup this time. We're looking for a big effort."

Tollett said it might be a mistake to overlook Keagan as well. The 4-year-old Keagan was a disappointment last year after being claimed for $80,000, but he is coming off a pair of sharply improved allowance tries at Sunland Park.

"In retrospect, it is clear that he was just a tired horse when we claimed him last year," Tollett said. "Now he has had his rest and he is rounding back into form. He ran a really good race to be beaten just a neck in his comeback race, then he was compromised by a wide trip last time. That race was much better than it looks on paper. He'll have to come from a long way back sprinting, but if the race sets up for a deep closer, he could surprise some people."

Memorial services held for Nick Puhich

Memorial services were held at Emerald Downs on Wednesday for longtime jockey agent Nick Puhich, who died last Sunday at the age of 83. Puhich grew up in Renton with brothers Ivan, Joe, Eddie, and Stanley, and he worked at the racetrack, most notably as agent for jockey Larry Pierce, until retiring just a couple of years ago. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Myrna, and son Mike Puhich, who is training in Southern California.