06/27/2002 11:00PM

Grits'n Hard Toast finally gets a win

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Nearly 3 1/2 years ago, Grits'n Hard Toast was regarded as a possible contender for the 125th Kentucky Derby. He had won the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 16, 1999, but he soon was off the Derby trail following a couple of disappointing efforts.

Grits'n Hard Toast won the Iowa Derby that summer but then went on a downward spiral and was injured after a race at Turfway Park in September 2000. T.V. Smith, who bred, owned, and trained Grits'n Hard Toast, chose to run him for a $10,000 claiming tag when he returned to action from a 20-month layoff on May 27 at Churchill Downs, and Bill Gowan wasted little time submitting a claim.

For Gowan, the move seemed to be a failure, because not only did Grits'n Hard Toast run poorly the day Gowan claimed him, but he failed to finish when he made his first start for Gowan on June 14. Gowan then dropped Grits'n Hard Toast in for a $5,000 tag on Thursday, and the gelding flashed a semblance of his old form, running off to a five-length victory under Willie Martinez.

"He's got a big old suspensory on him," said Gowan, a 37-year-old native of the northern Louisiana town of Winnsboro. "But the day he pulled up, there wasn't anything wrong with him. He was following another horse who got all crossed up and bolted ahead of us, and we were so far out of it the jock just pulled him up."

Gowan is aware that Grits'n Hard Toast has had his 15 minutes of fame. Gowan said Smith approached him after the claim to wish him luck and to tell him a few things about the horse.

Grits'n Hard Toast "still hits the ground like a stakes horse," said Gowan. "T.V. said he hopes I make some money with him, because he's got a half-sister to him in his barn. The horse never lost his class, so I hope I can hold him together and keep doing some good with him."

Smith gave the horse his name because of an off-hand comment by stable employee who, speaking about another employee who failed to show up for work one morning, said, "He's probably in jail, eating grits and hard toast."

The name was a source of some fun, but when Grits'n Hard Toast won the Holy Bull, everything suddenly got a little more serious. But then he ran fourth in the Fountain of Youth, then ninth in the Florida Derby, and soon he was in racing oblivion.

Whiting returns with win

No, Lynn Whiting did not go on vacation or get suspended. Until Thursday, the trainer had not run a horse for 30 days at Churchill, even though he had an incredible nine wins and four seconds from his first 14 starters of the meet.

Whiting said he was forced to regroup following his hot start because quite a few of the horses in his mid-sized stable had been lost to injury or the claim box. He also had run a couple of horses out of town, including the 3-year-old filly For Rubies, who was second in a Prairie Meadows stakes earlier this month.

But on Thursday, Whiting and For Rubies were back in action at Churchill, where the filly posted a 1 3/4-length victory in a $49,200 allowance at 7 1/2 furlongs. The victory improved Whiting's record at the meet to 10 wins from 15 starts.

After-Churchill jockey plans

Jon Court will be trying for an unprecedented fifth straight riding title at Ellis Park, but his competition figures to be tough.

Among the jockeys who intend to ride at the 41-day meet, which begins July 10, are Calvin Borel, Marlon St. Julien, Lonnie Meche, James Lopez, Charlie Woods Jr., Willie Martinez, Greta Kuntzweiler, Valerie Nagle, Kris Prather, Joe Judice, Danny Coa, Jose Martinez Jr., and Brian Peck.

Meanwhile, as usual, several of Churchill's top jockeys are headed to Saratoga, including Pat Day, Mark Guidry, and Craig Perret.

Robby Albarado will ride full-time at Arlington from July 27 until the Keeneland meet starts in October, said his agent, Lenny Pike Jr. Donnie Meche also is headed to Arlington, where his main client, trainer Steve Asmussen, has a large stable of runners.

Bang-up field for Firecracker

Small- to mid-sized fields are being projected for the two 2-year-old stakes that close the meet next weekend, but a larger field of older horses is expected for the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap here Thursday.

Strut the Stage, third in the Grade 1 Manhattan in his last start, and Good Journey, winner in California of his last two starts, are among the top shippers expected for the $250,000 Firecracker. Other probables for the one-mile turf race include Congaree, Boastful, Morluc, and Jake the Flake. Churchill officials are hoping for a field of nine or 10.

Heavy favorites appear to be limiting the size of both the $100,000 Debutante on Saturday and the $125,000 Bashford Manor on Sunday. Holiday Runner and Posse are the big names for those respective races.

Beverly Greedy vs. B-boys

With Beverly Greedy, Whiting has one of the major contenders Sunday in the featured ninth race, a $57,000 allowance sprint that drew a field of seven older sprints.

Beverly Greedy, to be ridden by Calvin Borel, has been very consistent under Whiting's care and should be one of the favorites in the six-furlong race. His main challengers figure to be Bet Me Best, Bidis, and Big Bad George.

Two other allowance races directly precede the feature on a 10-race card that begins at 1:10 p.m.