12/20/2010 3:20PM

Gran Estreno looks for early gift in feature

Four-Footed Fotos
Gran Estreno, winner of the Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap, will be a heavy favorite in an optional claimer Wednesday at Fair Grounds.

Tis the season of giving, and Fair Grounds, hosting a rare Wednesday card, has offered up to horseplayers its strongest weekday program so far this 2010-11 racing season. The 10-race card kicks off with an open maiden special weight, includes a fairly appealing Louisiana-bred turf starter allowance, a Louisiana-bred entry-level allowance, and, better still, an open second-level turf-sprint allowance. Even then, the stocking isn’t stuffed: Featured is race 7, a high-end turf-route allowance also open to $80,000 claimers.

As for holiday generosity, the conditions of race 7 come gift-wrapped for morning-line favorite Gran Estreno. The race, carded at 1 1/16 miles on turf, is for horses who haven’t won $36,000 twice since June 22, but various types of races, such as claimers, don’t count against a horse’s eligibility. Gran Estreno has won twice since that date, but the second of those wins was for a $100,000 claiming tag. His other win came in the Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap, and Gran Estreno exits a second-place finish Dec. 4 at Fair Grounds in the Diliberto Memorial Handicap: To say he’s a strong fit in the Wednesday feature is to say too little.

But Gran Estreno figures to go postward well below his 7-5 morning-line odds. Though he ran well enough in the Diliberto, the performance marked Gran Estreno’s first on-the-board finish in three starts over the Fair Grounds grass course, and Gran Estreno, on the cusp of his 8th birthday, returns after just 17 days’ rest. Perhaps worse still, there are just five other horses entered in the Wednesday feature, and for some reason, the combination of a standout favorite and a short field often produces a less-than-obvious outcome. Maybe Gran Estreno isn’t such a cinch after all.

Two other Diliberto runners are among Gran Estreno’s opponents. Ready Set finished seventh in the race, Caberneigh fifth, and both horses raced closer to the pace than they’d prefer. But perhaps more dangerous than the Diliberto two is Cross Village, who hasn’t started since a ninth-place finish in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap on July 17. Cross Village is a 4-year-old with only eight grass starts, and he was showing signs of serious improvement over the summer. Working at Hawthorne for his comeback, Cross Village has posted a series of encouraging workouts, and his trainer, Ingrid Mason, has won with four of her last eight starters returning from layoffs similar to that of Cross Village.