12/29/2008 12:00AM

Golden Bear puts spotlight on 3-year-olds

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ALBANY, Calif. - It's time to start thinking of 3-year-olds, at least those that turn 3 on Thursday.

The next six weeks will see Golden Gate Fields feature 3-year-olds as the Kentucky Derby trail starting gates open.

On New Year's Day, five 3-year-olds will compete in the $75,000 Golden Bear Stakes over six furlongs. Nina's Benchmark and Free Action come in on two-race winning streaks. Revoluta won his debut. Backbackbackgone has won 3 of 4 starts, including a pair of stakes, and Capital Cat, who has the most experience of any of the runners, is a maiden.

The most accomplished of the entrants is Backbackbackgone, who graduated by 10 lengths in his debut at Bay Meadows last spring and then went on to win the Willard Proctor at Hollywood Park and the Jack Goodman at Santa Anita following a nearly five-month layoff. He tired late, finishing fifth after being part of a contentious pace in the seven-furlong Hollywood Prevue in his last start Nov. 23.

"I think he probably is a sprinter," said trainer Peter Miller, who plans to use the Golden Bear as a prep for the six-furlong Sunshine Millions Dash.

"I'm definitely coming this time," he said after having scratched Backbackbackgone from the Dec. 20 Gold Rush at one mile here.

Miller also entered the colt in the Lost in the Fog Stakes at Turf Paradise last weekend but scratched because the track there was muddy.

Miller has been shopping for the right spot for the colt and believes he's found it.

"This is the same distance as the Sunshine Millions and it's three and a half weeks out," he said.

For Backbackbackgone's primary rivals, the Golden Bear is simply the best option available.

Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Revoluta and owns him with longtime business partner George Todaro, said no races have gone for the colt since his sparkling debut victory Nov. 27.

With only one race to judge by, Hollendorfer was pleased because the colt, a $130,000 Keeneland yearling purchase, did everything right in his debut. However, he cautions the colt "wasn't tested," even though he beat Hornung, who came back to win his next start by eight lengths.

Nina's Benchmark and Free Action both come into the race off victories in starter allowances.

"I don't know if he should be in a race like that, but he's a decent little horse," trainer Bud Klokstad said of the undefeated Free Action, who will make his first start since Nov. 14.

"It's the best race available," said Lloyd Mason, who has seen Nina's Benchmark win two straight as the favorite. "They haven't put up an allowance race and probably won't for a while. It's the only spot, but it's a short field."

The maiden Capital Cat was fourth, beaten 11 1/4 lengths by Revoluta, before finishing third in his last start behind Hornung.

Free Action, who like Backbackbackgone was scratched from the Gold Rush, is the only one of the four winners right now that may have two turns in his immediate future.

"I've got a hunch he might run long," Klokstad said.

Klokstad isn't thinking California Derby, though, unless Free Action does something very spectacular in the Golden Bear.

Golden Gate vs. Portland Meadows

Four Golden Gate Fields riders will travel to Portland Meadows next Wednesday to participate in the Golden Gate vs. Portland Meadows Jockey Challenge.

Representing Golden Gate Fields will be Russell Baze, Kyle Kaenel, Francisco Duran, and Leslie Mawing. Debbie Hoonan-Trujillo, Mark Anderson, Joe Crispin, and Javier Matias will represent Portland Meadows in the four-race competition.

Baze will put the finishing touches on his 12th 400-win year Wednesday. No other jockey has ridden 400 winners in a year more than three times.

Ledezma starts new meeting strong

Trainer Sergio Ledezma opened the winter/spring meet with three straight winners.

His Serpentineserpentine won the first race of the 118-day meeting on Friday, romping home by five lengths as the 6-5 favorite.

On Saturday, Ledezma saddled two more winners, scoring back-to-back victories with Change Your Mask ($6.80) in the third and Sagle's Guy ($6.40) in the fourth.

The streak was snapped Sunday when 18-1 Whiteout Storm faded to fifth after getting a stalking trip.

* Golden Gate Fields will start the new year with a special Dollar Day promotion, with $1 admission, parking, programs, beer, soda, and hot dogs on Thursday.