08/26/2010 3:11PM

Hard Bill stepping up to first U.S. stakes.

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Tom Keyser
Crown of Thorns may need a race before hitting top form.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Trainer Mike Puype does not have anything in the Pacific Classic on Saturday at Del Mar, but he is hoping to bookend the day’s other stakes, first with Bruce’s Dream in the Del Mar Mile, and then with Hard Bill in the Grade 1, $300,000 Pat O’Brien, which goes as the 10th race on the 11-race card.

The Pat O’Brien, at seven furlongs, could be the most challenging race in the pick six sequence. It drew a competitive field of 10, including Smiling Tiger, who won the six-furlong Bing Crosby on Aug. 1, and Crown of Thorns, who is making his first start since a heartbreaking loss in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Trainer Bob Baffert has entered three horses – E Z’s Gentleman, El Brujo, and Sangaree – but at least one is expected to scratch, the most likely candidate being E Z’s Gentleman. Baffert earlier in the week said E Z’s Gentleman “doesn’t seem to be going over” Del Mar’s Polytrack surface “that well.” And he named Martin Garcia as the rider for E Z’s Gentleman, even though Garcia will be at Saratoga on Saturday, riding for Baffert in stakes races like the King’s Bishop and Victory Ride.

Hard Bill would be easy to overlook in this field. He is coming off a victory against a second-level allowance field at Hollywood Park on July 4. This will be his first try in a stakes race since being imported from his native Chile at the end of 2008. But his last race was his best race in this country, came following a layoff of 51 weeks, and, perhaps most significantly, was his first since being gelded.

“He ran quite well, so we thought we’d take a shot,” Puype said.

Hard Bill has finished first or second in 12 of 13 lifetime starts.

Smiling Tiger led from gate to wire in the Bing Crosby, his cause aided by the disastrous start of Cost of Freedom, who is not in this race. Smiling Tiger’s pace pal this time could be Tropic Storm, who, like Hard Bill, ran super following a lengthy layoff in a slightly softer spot last time out.

Crown of Thorns has the most glittering r é sum é , but in his brief career he usually has needed a race before being at his best.

El Brujo, a synthetic specialist, was a decent fourth in the Bing Crosby, his first start for Baffert. He added blinkers that day, but is removing them for the Pat O’Brien.