03/21/2007 12:00AM

Fresh and fit, Off Duty looks hard to catch


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The multiple stakes winner Rodeo's Castle is a quick horse, but it appears he will have to catch the up-and-coming Off Duty to win the featured ninth race at Oaklawn Park on Friday.

The two will meet in a $75,000 optional claimer over six furlongs, and the race drew nothing but stakes winners. The remaining starters are Go Now, Celluloid Hero, Spotsgone, and Rapid Proof.

Off Duty won the $48,000 Forward Pass at Arlington Park last August, capping a three-race win streak that began with a first-level allowance at a mile at Churchill Downs in June and a six-furlong allowance at Churchill in July.

Off Duty last raced on Sept. 9, and finished fourth, beaten two lengths, in the $75,000 Prairie Meadows Derby at 1 1/16 miles. For his return, he shows a strong series of works, his latest a bullet half-mile move in 48.40 seconds here March 16.

"He's ready," said Lynn Whiting, who trains Off Duty. "He's done everything he's supposed to do. He's worked sharp. He's trained sharp the entire winter here. We've brought him along slow, looking for a spot late in the meet here for him, and if all goes well, we're expecting big things from this horse this summer. He's a quality horse."

Off Duty has used speed to win his races, and Whiting looks for him to be prominent again Friday when he breaks from post 4 under Stewart Elliott.

"The only other speed in the race is really Rodeo's Castle, and I think this horse, being fresh, he may have a little more foot himself," said Whiting. "If he comes away good, he'll be up on the front end, and he's ready to rock."

Rodeo's Castle returns to the overnight ranks after finishing third in the $50,000 King Cotton here Feb. 9. He will break from post 6, and could get a tracking trip behind Off Duty. Beverly Fowler trains Rodeo's Castle and has given the mount to Gabriel Saez.

Celluloid Hero is a three-time stakes winner, with one of those victories coming last year here in the $50,000 Dixieland. Celluloid Hero is a half-brother to Star of Navarone, winner of the $600,000 WinStar Derby last Sunday at Sunland Park. Seth Martinez has the mount on Celluloid Hero for trainer Mac Robertson.