10/02/2008 12:00AM

Grove has seven ready to roll


Despite sending out nine horses, including five who started at 5-2 or lower, trainer Chris Grove came up empty on last year's Maryland Million Day program. And although he is winning at a 20 percent clip with nearly 250 starters in 2008, Grove has begun Laurel Park's fall meet by going 0 for 20.

Last October's disappointing day and this fall's slow start could quickly be forgotten, however, if Grove manages to connect in Saturday's 23rd annual Maryland Million.

Grove will saddle seven horses, including solid contenders Five Steps in the featured $300,000 Classic, Sweet Goodbye in the $150,000 Oaks, and Lexi Star in the $150,000 Distaff on a 12-race card devoted to the offspring of Maryland sires.

The all-stakes program begins at 12:15 p.m. Eastern and will be broadcast on HRTV.

A year ago, Grove had to settle for seconds with 2-5 favorite Silmaril in the Distaff and 8-5 shot Five Steps in the Classic, along with a third from 4-5 chalk Lexi Star in the Ladies.

He very well could do better this time, especially in the featured 1 3/16-mile Classic (race 11), where Five Steps brings sharp form into his rematch with defending champion Evil Storm and the 6-5 morning-line favorite, Cuba.

Five Steps, a 7-year-old who missed 18 months with a knee injury that was repaired using stem cell surgery, finished third in the 2005 Classic and was beaten three lengths by Evil Storm last year. He has won 3 of 4 starts this year, posting a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 104 winning the $100,000 R.R.M. Carpenter Memorial Handicap at Delaware Park in July.

Cuba comes back just two weeks after finishing a distant third behind Commentator in the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs. The last time he came back on similar short rest, Cuba romped by more than seven lengths at Monmouth.

"This horse runs well with races spaced close together," said trainer Bobby Dibona. "He came out of the Mass Cap well, and this is a restricted race, so we have to take a shot."

Evil Storm is winless in seven starts since winning last year's Classic, but trainer Mike Gorham said he expects improvement with the return to Laurel, where the 7-year-old is 4 for 11 lifetime.

"That's where he does his best running," Gorham said. "It's kind of hard to spot him throughout the year. He doesn't seem to run as well at Delaware as at Laurel."

In other highlights on the card:

* Defending champion Maddy's Heart and Beau's Trip, separated by a neck a year ago, top 12 fillies and mares going 1 1/8 miles on turf in the $200,000 Ladies (race 7).

* Dr. Rico and Broadway Producer, who finished second and third a year ago, and 2006 runner-up D.J.'s Hero are among seven turf specialists in the $200,000 Turf (race 4) at 1 1/8 miles.

* In what looks like the best betting race on the card, nine fillies and mares with a collective 68 victories and $3.1 earnings will clash in the $150,000 Distaff (race 10) at seven furlongs. Although the field contains five-time stakes winners Lexi Star and Jet Away Jane, the probable favorite is Fancy Diamond, who finished second in the $250,000 My Juliet at Philadelphia Park earlier this season.

* Sweet Goodbye, a winner of three straight, and 2007 Maryland Million Lassie winner Love for Not are among nine 3-year-old fillies in the $150,000 Oaks (race 9).

* The New York-based Grand Champion and Delaware shipper Lemons of Love, who finished one-two a year ago, are rematched in the $150,000 Sprint (race 2) at six furlongs.

* Undefeated stakes winners Onearmedbandit and Miss Charm City face Fools in Love, runner-up in the $100,000 Sorority at Monmouth, in the $150,000 Lassie (race 8) for 2-year-old fillies going seven furlongs.

* Stakes winners Juke Joint and Mr. Keeper head a field of 11 2-year-olds in the $150,000 Nursery (race 5).

* Natural Seven, 5 for 6 this season in turf sprints, looks like the lock of the day as the 3-5 morning-line favorite in the $100,000 Turf Sprint Handicap (race 6) at 5 1/2 furlongs.

* There are also three starter handicaps, including race 1, where two-time defending champion Off the Glass will try to to become the fifth three-time winner of a Maryland Million race.