10/11/2007 12:00AM

Grove goes nine-deep on Maryland Million Day

EmailTrainer Chris Grove is used to being the hunter, not the hunted. But he finds himself heading into the Maryland Million card on Saturday at Laurel Park with nine horses in the 12-race extravaganza, three of whom are morning-line favorites, including Five Steps in the day's richest race, the $300,000 Maryland Million Classic.

"There's a lot of pressure," Grove said. "I've never had this many with bull's-eyes on their backs. I'm used to lurking and sneaking up on them."

Not this time. In addition to Five Steps, Groves will send out Silmaril - who should be one of the day's shortest-priced favorites - in the $150,000 Distaff, and Lexi Star, whose good recent form makes her a top contender in the $200,000 Ladies on turf despite her lack of experience on the surface.

This is the 22nd Maryland Million, which is for offspring of sires based in Maryland. It was created by the great sportscaster Jim McKay, and has been copied by just about every state in which there is racing. The 12 races are worth a total of $1.68 million.

The card begins at 12:15 p.m. Eastern, and includes a pick six that has a guaranteed pool of $25,000, with the base wager being $1. The 1o3/16-mile Classic goes as the 11th race, with a scheduled post time of 5:40 p.m. It is the last race on a live, two-hour telecast on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network beginning at 4 p.m.

Five Steps has won all three of his starts since returning from a 20-month layoff, twice at Charles Town and then at the Meadowlands.

"We originally had to stop on him because of wear and tear in a knee," Grove said. "He was just going to have three months off. We gave him six months, but after he went back into training we had to stop on him with a check ligament. We did the stem cell surgery on him."

Five Steps displayed plenty of promise before going to the sidelines - he was third in the Classic two years ago - but his Beyer Speed Figures suggest he has come back better than ever. He got a career-best 101 in his last start.

Nine others are in the Classic, including Due and Play Bingo, the winners of this race in 2006 and 2005. Those two, however, are coming off a loss to Putonyerdancinshuz, who won a money-allowance race on Sept. 21 in his lone try at Laurel.

Frank the Barber has shipped in from California, where he captured the Pomona Derby on a sloppy track in his last start.

Broadway Producer is entered in both the Classic and the $200,000 Turf, but his trainer, John Terranova, said he would go in the Turf.

Grove's first runner on Saturday will be Silmaril in the second race, the seven-furlong Distaff, which she won last year. She also won the Oaks in 2004. A victory Saturday would make Silmaril the fifth three-time winner in Maryland Million history, and the 17th Maryland-bred millionaire. She must lug 125 pounds.

"She's not nominated to the Breeders' Cup," Grove said. "This is our Breeders' Cup for her. I'm worried about her giving away so much weight, but as long as that doesn't bother her and she doesn't get in trouble, she should run her race."

In the 1 1/8-mile Ladies, Lexi Star will be making her first start on turf, but she is racing in top form. She most recently was second to Hystericalady in the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park.

"I couldn't run her in the Ladies against Silmaril, and running her against Five Steps in the Classic wouldn't be intelligent, so this is the spot," Grove said. "She worked well on the grass."

Lexi Star's eight rivals include Debbie Sue, who won the Ladies last year but is winless in eight starts since.

In the $200,000 Turf at 1 1/8 miles, Broadway Producer will have to overcome post 11 in the field of 13.

"I cross-entered in the Classic in case it rains and the Turf comes off the grass," Terranova said. "If the turf is soft, he doesn't fire his best shot. The weather forecast is good. He loves hard turf. Hopefully he'll get it."

In other significant Maryland Million races:

* Delaware Oaks winner Moon Catcher heads the field in the $150,000 Oaks at one mile.

* Grand Champion ships in from New York to take on Lemons of Love in the $150,000 Sprint over six furlongs.

* Tremont runner-up Izzy Speaking should be a strong favorite going seven furlongs in the $150,000 Nursery.