10/06/2006 11:00PM

Great Hunter gets his prey

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - An East vs. West showdown came to fruition when the field for the $500,000 hit the top of the stretch Saturday at Keeneland.

The 2-5 favorite, Circular Quay, had circled tiring rivals and was in full flight under Garrett Gomez, while the California invader Great Hunter had been conserved by Victor Espinoza and was primed to do his best running.

In the end, and on this day, Great Hunter proved clearly best, drawing off to win the Grade 1 race by 1 3/4 lengths, while Circular Quay was all-out to nip Street Sense for second by a nose.

A more important meeting awaits.

"I think we might go to the Breeders' Cup now," Paul Reddam, the owner of Great Hunter, said with tongue in cheek seconds after his latest stable star crossed the wire. Indeed, what could be a riveting rematch is set for the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

Great Hunter, ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Doug O'Neill, returned $13.60 as second choice after finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.09 over Polytrack. After Street Sense, who had made a bold move to take a short-lived lead entering the stretch, the order of finish was Birdbirdistheword, Passport, Bold Start, Teuflesberg, and French Transition.

Great Hunter had finished second in three straight stakes on the Southern California circuit before his breakthrough victory Saturday. Circular Quay had won his previous races, all in highly impressive fashion.

Before a sun-splashed crowd of 28,880, Teuflesberg and French Transition set the early pace while Great Hunter and Circular Quay waited to pounce. Into and out of the far turn, the field bunched together, with both favorites having relatively clean trips while making their moves.

"I got lucky because he got through on the outside," said Espinoza, who was aboard Great Hunter for the first time. "As soon as I shook free, he just settled so nice. It even shocked myself, the way he ran."

Great Hunter, by Aptitude, earned $310,000 and now has a career bankroll of $430,000. Reddam purchased him privately after the colt ran twice in Texas.