09/30/2003 11:00PM

Great Notion vs. elders in Phoenix

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Three-year-olds racing against older stakes horses for the first time are often viewed as underdogs, much like boxers stepping into heavier weight classes.

Yet recently, at least in the sprint ranks, it has been the older horses, not the 3-year-olds, who have taken their lumps. Three-year-old Ghostzapper won last week's Grade 1 Vosburgh by 6 1/2 lengths, defeating older and more seasoned opponents. On Friday at Keeneland, Great Notion similarly will seek to handle older rivals when he races against Beau's Town and six other sprinters in the $250,000, Grade 3 Phoenix Breeders' Cup.

On the basis of Ghostzapper's Vosburgh and other 3-year-old performances, Great Notion should be a force in the six-furlong Phoenix. A month and a half ago at Saratoga, he ran the race of his career, leading for much of the Grade 1 King's Bishop before fading to second. He was beaten a neck by Valid Video in the final strides of the seven-furlong race.

Finishing a neck behind him in third was Ghostzapper, and two lengths behind Great Notion was During, subsequent winner of the Jerome Stakes for 3-year-olds.

Great Notion's trainer, Darrin Miller, said "I can't ignore" that facing older horses "presents a significant challenge. Ultimately, I think it comes down to mental maturity. My horse has always been very mature."

To win the Phoenix, Great Notion must call upon that maturity and his blazing early speed. Breaking from the rail in the King's Bishop, jockey Pat Day used him early, and Great Notion broke the hearts of many of his front-running opponents when he set fractions of 21.76 and 43.79 seconds.

Great Notion may once again be forced to roll early with front-running graded stakes winners Beau's Town and Najran in the Phoenix. "It's going to be a battle of wills," Miller said. Pat Day has the mount.

The likely favorite is Beau's Town, who is prepping for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. A winner of 10 of 14 starts, he comes off a victory in the Grade 2 Bing Crosby on July 26 at Del Mar. That performance earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 116, the highest figure posted by any Phoenix starter. Pat Valenzuela rides.

Out of My Way, Strength and Honor, Ethan Man, Take Achance on Me, Najran, and Dubai Sheikh complete the field. Of those, Najran seems most likely to challenge. He won the Grade 3 Westchester at Belmont Park earlier this year over a lightning-fast track, racing a mile in 1:32.24. His time eclipsed the Belmont Park track record set by Williamstown and equaled Dr. Fager's North American dirt record.