03/30/2006 1:00AM

Gygistar starts another year in Artax

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Crank him up and let him roll. It's becoming a familiar routine for Gygistar, a prototypical hard-knocker whose 7-year-old campaign gets under way Saturday in the $100,000 Artax Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

"We wait for the middle-distance races after we give him some time off at the end of each year," said trainer Mark Hennig, noting that Gygistar "hasn't skipped a beat" since returning from a freshening that followed a third-place finish in the Nov. 26 Cigar Mile. "We're looking forward to getting started on hopefully another good year."

, bred and owned by Edward P. Evans, has done yeoman's work in his 31-race career, winning 11 times and earning nearly $1.1 million. With Javier Castellano set to ride, Gygistar will break from post 2 against six other older horses in the 7 1/2-furlong Artax.

Last year, Gygistar was sent away a solid favorite making his seasonal debut in the Artax. He finished second, four lengths behind Value Plus, in an effort that set him up perfectly for a second straight victory in the Grade 3 Westchester Handicap at Belmont Park. Gygistar earned a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 115 in that second Westchester win.

"We're pointing to the Westchester again," said Hennig.

Whether that means Gygistar is vulnerable following another four-month layoff is for horseplayers to decide. If in fact he is to be beaten, Blazing Purrsuit appears to be the most capable. In three races over the Gulfstream main track, Blazing Purrsuit has finished first every time, although he was disqualified in one instance. Trained by Jimmy Toner, Blazing Purrsuit will have the meet's leading rider, John Velazquez, aboard for the fifth straight time.

The balance of the Artax field is Auguri, Nightmare Affair, Middle Earth, Dark Cheetah, and Little Thunder. Of those, Middle Earth might be a decent price play because of his dangerous early speed.

The Artax, the ninth of 13 races Saturday, is named for the winner of the 1999 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Gulfstream. This is the fifth running.

Lure: Sir Shackleton in turf debut

Nick Zito doesn't hold nearly as strong a hand in the Florida Derby as he did last year, when he sent out the respective one-two finishers, High Fly and Noble Causeway. But even if the Zito-trained Doc Cheney and Hesanoldsalt are unable to raise their Kentucky Derby profiles in the Gulfstream showcase, Zito, with entries in eight races, still has plenty of chances for a productive afternoon.

One race in which Zito figures as a central figure is the $75,000 Lure Stakes (race 13), a one-mile grass race that attracted an overflow crowd of older horses. Sir Shackleton, a millionaire after 19 starts on the dirt, will make his turf debut for Zito in the Lure, and if the 5-year-old can make a seamless transition and overcome his post-11 assignment, he could very well make his presence felt.

Sir Shackleton, with Jeremy Rose to ride, enters off a rallying victory in the Feb. 11 Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, his lone start since the Breeders' Cup Classic. Off that seven-furlong sharpener, Sir Shackleton figures part of the mix in a very well-matched race that also drew such capable veterans as Rebel Rebel, Drum Major, Saint Stephen, and Terrific Storm.

Drum Major, trained by George Weaver, was particularly impressive capturing the Pete Axthelm Handicap three starts ago and would be dangerous given a good trip under Rafael Bejarano.

Spectacular Bid: Exclusive Quality stands out

From the seemingly endless supply of young, talented horses that hail from the Todd Pletcher stable, brace yourself for another potential star: Exclusive Quality, whose Beyer Figure of 101 in just his third career start figures to make the colt a lopsided favorite in the first of seven stakes on the afternoon, the $75,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes (race 7).

Exclusive Quality, an $850,000 yearling purchase by Aaron and Marie Jones, ran second in his November debut at Aqueduct but has won both subsequent starts, including a tough entry-level allowance sprint here four weeks ago. Velazquez retains the mount for Pletcher.

Just five other 3-year-olds will line up against Exclusive Quality in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid. In Summation, a Calder-based colt trained by Frank Gomez who opened his career with five straight wins, is the most accomplished of those challengers, while Diabolical might be the most intriguing. Diabolical, with Cornelio Velasquez to ride for Steve Klesaris, has been competing most recently in turf routes.

Beacon Shine, Carvajal, and R Loyal Man complete the lineup.