03/17/2009 11:00PM

Hard Hitting starts year in El Primero trial

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The 2009 racing calendar for the 3-year-old Quarter Horse Hard Hitting has been set. He will run in four sets of time trials and four derbies, a campaign that begins on Friday and ends in October.

It looks easy on paper. Now trainer Chuck Treece has to make it happen.

"If we make it, that's eight races, and eight good races," Treece said. "We feel good about him."

Friday, Hard Hitting returns from a three-month break in the second of two divisions of the El Primero Del Ano Derby trials at Los Alamitos. The $150,000 final of the 400-yard race is April 11.

Later this year, Treece is pointing Hard Hitting to three $250,000 races - the Governor's Cup Derby on July 25, Golden State Derby on Aug. 29, and Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Racing Association Breeders' Derby on Oct. 2.

Hard Hitting had mixed results in 2008. A winner of 4 of 8 starts and $259,275, Hard Hitting won the Governor's Cup Futurity in July, and appeared poised for a big fall in the major futurities. He failed to win another major race.

Hard Hitting finished fourth as the 1-5 favorite in the PCQHRA Futurity in October, and failed to qualify for the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity in December.

For Friday, Treece's biggest concern is not Hard Hitting's condition, but the trial distance of 400 yards. It may be the limit of Hard Hitting's best trip.

"The main thing with him is getting the distance out of him," Treece said. "At 300 and 350, he's double tough. At 400, we'll see if he can stretch out a little farther."

For his comeback, Hard Hitting has had two workouts, which is typical for a Quarter Horse returning from a layoff. Hard Hitting worked 220 yards in 12.40 seconds on Feb. 21 and 350 yards, from the gate, in 18.50 on March 3.

"He'll be ready to run," Treece said.

Before Los Alamitos moved to a year-round Quarter Horse schedule at the start of this decade, the El Primero Del Ano Derby, and the La Primera Del Ano Derby for fillies on April 12, were the first major stakes of the year for California 3-year-olds.

The Los Alamitos Winter Derby in February is now the first major stakes of the year for the division.

These races come just months after the Golden State Million in November and Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity in December, the focus for many of the nation's top Quarter Horses.

The division leaders are not in the El Primero field, and are being rested for starts later this year.

Friday, there are 14 males in the El Primero trials, with 10 berths available for the final. The first division is a showdown between A Tempting Dash, the winner of the Winter Derby, and Royal Proclamation, who won the Los Alamitos Maiden Stakes last month.