10/03/2006 12:00AM

Happy Ticket right on track


Happy Ticket auditioned over the new Polytrack surface at Keeneland earlier this week, and after working five furlongs in a bullet 59.60 seconds has been confirmed for Sunday's Grade 1, $500,000 Spinster. The race will serve as Happy Ticket's final prep for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff, and she could start as second choice behind Spun Sugar, to whom she finished second by a neck in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap in April.

Happy Ticket has started just twice since the Apple Blossom, quietly going about her business at her home track of Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La. She can jump back into the national spotlight with a win on Sunday. Her recent work suggests she is up to the task.

"It was just easy, more of a stroll for her," said Andrew Leggio Jr., who trains Happy Ticket and has given the mount to Garrett Gomez.

Leggio and Stewart Madison, who bred and owns Happy Ticket, have plotted a careful campaign to get her back to the Breeders' Cup for a second year. She was the co-second choice in the race last year following her second-place finish to Ashado in the Grade 1 Beldame. Happy Ticket ended up 11th in the Distaff, and after the race underwent corrective throat surgery. She has thrived since.

"I think she's at the top of her game," said Madison.

Happy Ticket opened her 5-year-old campaign in February with a win in the $100,000 Louisiana Premier Night Distaff at Evangeline Downs. She then kicked things into high gear at Oaklawn, running second in a couple of thrillers. Before the Apple Blossom, she was second by a neck to Round Pond in the Grade 3 Azeri on March 11.

"That was a race and a half," said Leggio. "They just had at it from the time they left the gate to the time they hit the finish line."

Happy Ticket was given ample time to regroup from the demanding Oaklawn races, and returned to action on June 17, winning the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs by a head over Oonagh MacCool, who entered the race on a three-race winning streak. The Fleur de Lis victory gives Happy Ticket a win over the distance and surface of this year's Distaff. She has raced only once since, finishing second as the favorite in the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch at Del Mar on Aug. 6.

"I can't make a lot of excuses for the race," Madison said of the Hirsch. "But I would like to run it again. It might have a different outcome."

Happy Ticket was fanned wide in the first turn of the Hirsch, and also had a demanding trip getting to Del Mar. She arrived at the track about four hours later than scheduled the Wednesday before the race because of a flight delay in Dallas. Happy Ticket went on to finish 1 3/4 lengths behind Healthy Addiction, who in her next start won the Grade 2 Lady's Secret at Santa Anita.

Happy Ticket's record now stands at 12 wins from 18 starts. She has earned $1,236,838 for Madison, a 62-year-old resident of Jackson, Miss., and a partner in Malaco Records, which produces and distributes rhythm and blues and gospel music. Among the top horses he has raced are Grade 3 winners Vivid Imagination, a half-sister to Serena's Song, and Link.

Happy Ticket's rise to the top tier of the division the past two years was put in motion by some keen matchmaking by Madison. He made the call to breed Love and Happiness, a gritty filly he owned, to millionaire Anet.

Madison's next call was to send the resulting foal, Happy Ticket, to Leggio. A trainer in Louisiana for more than 30 years, Leggio, 72, has success stories that include Candid Glen, a Grade 2 winner of $1.2 million, and Sarah Lane's Oates, a 15-time stakes winner of $888,296.

"Andy is a very good trainer, but also a very patient trainer," said Madison. "I thought this was definitely the right place for her, for this family. I told Andy, 'When you get this horse, her mother had problems. If she's got any, just stop any time.' We started on her as a 2-year-old, stopped on her two or three times for minor shins or ankles, but Andy was very patient."

The plan worked. Happy Ticket made her debut in June of her 3-year-old year, and won her first nine starts. She went on to win the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga in August 2005. The Ballerina was the first Grade 1 win for Madison and Leggio, and Happy Ticket is now on the cusp of giving the pair another meaningful milestone. Sunday, she could become the all-time winningest Louisiana-bred. Happy Ticket is just $33,215 shy of surpassing the earnings mark held by Scott's Scoundrel.

"She is something else," said Leggio. "I just love her, and I want to get to see her be the top money-earning Louisiana-bred. She's just a Louisiana heroine."

Her territory can expand on Sunday.