03/07/2006 1:00AM

Happy Ticket to battle Round Pond in thriller

Jeff Coady / Coady Photography
Happy Ticket, working last month under Robby Albarado, comes off a 5 1/2-length stakes win.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Grade 1 winners Happy Ticket and Round Pond are both on the comeback trail and need a stepping-stone to the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap later in the meet. Both have landed in Saturday's Grade 3, $175,000 Azeri Breeders' Cup as their prep, and the resulting matchup is an early-season coup for the Oaklawn stakes program.

As a rule, horses of such caliber do not meet at Oaklawn until the track's annual Racing Festival of the South, a weeklong run of prestigious stakes each April. But with Happy Ticket and Round Pond both based in this part of the country and on similar schedules following surgery last year, the Azeri becomes a key race for each as they prepare for the Apple Blossom.

Saturday's Azeri, formerly the Oaklawn Breeders' Cup before being renamed for last year's running, is the race's best matchup since Heritage of Gold and Lu Ravi finished one-two in the race in both 2000 and 2001, said Oaklawn spokesman Terry Wallace. For others, this year's showdown calls to mind 1995, when Halo America won the Oaklawn BC against Heavenly Prize.

"It will be a great, great matchup," said Robby Albarado, who will ride Happy Ticket.

"This is what people want to see - good horses," said Stewart Elliott, who will be aboard Round Pond.

Happy Ticket, who had corrective throat surgery last fall, made her return to the races on Feb. 18, and galloped to a 5 1/2-length win in the $100,000 Louisiana Premier Night Distaff at Evangeline Downs. The mile race was restricted to Louisiana-breds.

Round Pond romped in her comeback race at Oaklawn on Feb. 16; she had a bone chip removed from her left knee last summer. Her win came in a six-furlong optional claimer.

Separating those two in the 1 1/16-mile Azeri will not be easy, as there are many variables to sort through.

Round Pond has the highest last-race Beyer Speed Figure, a 102, compared to Happy Ticket's 98. Happy Ticket is a 5-year-old mare, while Round Pond is a 4-year-old filly who was born in May, making her a late foal.

In another variable, Round Pond will carry 113 pounds under the allowance conditions of the Azeri, five less than she toted in her comeback race. Happy Ticket will carry 119, picking up three pounds off her return race.

As for the company they have been keeping, Happy Ticket won the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga last August over eventual Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Pleasant Home. Happy Ticket also fought hard against champion Ashado in the Grade 1 Beldame last October, finishing second by a half-length in what was her first start at 1 1/8 miles and her first start at Belmont Park.

Round Pond ranked among her division's best last year. In just her fourth career start, she beat a deep field in the Grade 2 Fantasy at Oaklawn. One race later, Round Pond won the Grade 1 Acorn at Belmont. Among the horses she defeated were eventual champion Smuggler, Grade 1 winner Splendid Blended, and future Grade 1 winner In the Gold.

"From everything I've read, it sounds like I'm going to be going against probably the best [mare] in the country in Happy Ticket," said John Servis, who trains Round Pond. "I'll get a good line on my filly after the race. It will be interesting, with her first route race [of the year], hooking into a horse like that."

Round Pond looks up to the challenge. Servis believes she is on top of her game, and on Tuesday she breezed an easy five furlongs in 1:04.20, then came bouncing off the track. She has made a nice transition from age 3 to 4.

"I think she's stronger," said Servis. "She's a little bit bigger. She's very confident, where last year you could tell she was a little timid. Now, she thinks she's the queen."

The queen of trainer Andrew Leggio's barn is Happy Ticket. She is already a winner of 11 of 14 starts and $842,260, and it seems the party has just started.

"Right now, at this point in time, she's better than she was last year," said Leggio. "She's very energetic, and she wants to go out there and do what she does best, just run. She's enjoying it."

That was evident in her last start, when she simply cruised in the Distaff at Evangeline. She sat a few lengths off the pace early, then went on to cover the mile in a strong 1:38.60.

"The other day when I rode her - take nothing away from the rest of them - but it was a workout for her," said Albarado. "I feel like I've worked her faster than she ran that day. And she wasn't even blowing.

"She does a lot of things effortlessly."

So does Round Pond. In her comeback race, she sat off the lead early, easily overtook the pacesetter in the stretch, and went on to cover the six furlongs in a blazing 1:09.80.

"I just rode her with confidence," said Elliott. "A horse went out there and opened up a little bit, but I know how good of a filly she is and I knew she would kick. She showed that she was back to herself, and she finished really strong."

Thanks to the presence of each other, the comeback trail gets steeper for both Round Pond and Happy Ticket on Saturday.