05/31/2007 12:00AM

Free Thinking set for peak effort


NEW YORK - Three-year-olds have had the spotlight all spring, so why stop now, one week before the Belmont Stakes? This division has the nation's richest stakes opportunity Saturday in the $300,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown.

Elsewhere, the $250,000 Californian Stakes is the main attraction at Hollywood Park, and Churchill Downs offers a stakes tripleheader comprising the $150,000 Dogwood Breeders' Cup, the $150,000 Aristides BC, and the $100,000 Opening Verse Handicap.

Opening Verse Handicap

An ungraded turf stakes, this is a pretty competitive race. Free Thinking seems primed to run his best race, and that would be plenty good enough to win.

Although Icy Atlantic, Go Between, and Therecomesatiger all sport solid efforts in their past performances, Free Thinking ran two races last year that just seem of a higher quality. The first of those was in the Firecracker BC, in which he rallied strongly into a slow pace to be second to Miesque's Approval. Miesque's Approval, of course, went on to parlay an upset in the BC Mile into last year's turf male Eclipse Award. The other race that jumps off the paper is Free Thinking's narrow miss last fall in the Kelso BC to Ashkal Way, who went on to win the Grade 1 Citation.

Free Thinking appears ready to replicate that form in his third start this year. He faced tougher company than he meets Saturday in the Maker's Mark in his seasonal debut. He came back with a strong effort most recently, finishing a fast-closing third despite being severely compromised by an extremely slow early pace. It is to Free Thinking's benefit that there is more early speed for him to shoot at this time.


Buzzards Bay's career has been somewhat spotty since he won the Santa Anita Derby and was a good fifth in the Kentucky Derby two years ago, but he is in a sweet spot to get the money in this race.

Buzzards Bay made his return from an 11-month absence in last month's Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, and his third in that race was a better effort than it might appear on paper. He had a troubled start, and with the short run to the first turn in 1 1/16-mile races at Hollywood Park, he was pretty much taken out of his game from the get-go. Still, he finished willingly, although he was no threat to Molengao, who ran big that day. But Molengao is not back for this event, and Buzzards Bay, who has a right to improve second time back, is also in line for a more favorable trip. While there is speed breaking outside of him, Buzzards Bay has enough lick to outrun the eight breaking inside of him. That means by the time they hit the backstretch, Buzzards Bay could be sitting a perfect rail pocket trip, and he is good enough to capitalize on that.

Ohio Derby

Cowtown Cat will take a lot of money here, not off his 20th in the Kentucky Derby, but off his previous wins in the Illinois Derby and Gotham. But Cowtown Cat will be an underlay because his Illinois Derby was directly attributable to his getting away with a slow pace, and his Gotham was so slow it could have been timed with a sundial. Starbase will also get action off his second last time out in the Lexington, but given his poor prior stakes attempts, he must show me his Lexington wasn't an aberration. I like Forty Grams.

You could look at past performances for months and not see a trouble line that says "Brutal trip, lost whip," which is the comment for Forty Grams last time out in the Lone Star Derby. And that comment is right on. Forty Grams was squeezed back at the start, shuffled back behind a stopping pacesetter on the far turn, angled out and then back in upper stretch, had the rider lose the whip, and still finished in a dead heat for third, beaten only 2o1/2 lengths. This time, Forty Grams projects to sit a good trip just off a moderate early pace.