03/15/2008 12:00AM

Hard to separate two talented fillies

Sunny Taylor / Coady Photography
Eight Belles has a recency edge over unbeaten Pure Clan in the Honeybee.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Leading Kentucky Oaks candidates Pure Clan and Eight Belles will meet for the first time Sunday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The 1 1/16-mile race is the local prep for the Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy here April 6.

Pure Clan brings a sterling resume into the Honeybee. She is 4 for 4, with her last two wins coming in graded stakes at Churchill Downs. Eight Belles, meanwhile, has come to hand rapidly over the past few months, most recently posting a 13 1/2-length rout in a division of the $50,000 Martha Washington here Feb. 17. Her showdown with Pure Clan is one of the most anticipated races of the meet.

"I know in the Kentucky Oaks future book they ended [almost] even, so apparently this is going to be a good matchup come Honeybee Day," said Larry Jones, who trains Eight Belles for Fox Hill Farms.

Pure Clan closed as the 7-1 third choice in the most recent Oaks future pool, while Eight Belles was the 8-1 fourth choice.

Eight Belles could rule a slight favorite Sunday. She has a recency edge on Pure Clan, who will be making her first start since winning Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill on Nov.24.

In her first start of the year, Eight Belles won a first-level allowance at Fair Grounds on Jan. 21 by 15 lengths. For the effort, she earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, making her one of two 3-year-old fillies to have earned a triple-digit number so far in 2008. Last time out, in the Martha Washington, she set a win-margin record for an Oaklawn stakes, according to track officials.

Since the Martha Washington, Eight Belles has been flattered by her rivals' accomplishments. Fourth-place finisher Palanka City won a second-level allowance in her next start, with a Beyer of 96, and the sixth-place finisher, My Sweet Valor, took a first-level allowance. Eight Belles earned a 96 Beyer in the Martha Washington, which is the best last-race number in the Honeybee.

"Her acceleration that day was just phenomenal," said Jones. "She sat very relaxed, sat in a wonderful stalking position. She waited until she was asked and then she just exploded. She really quickened and went on."

Ramon Dominguez has the mount on Eight Belles, who drew post 6 in Sunday's field of six. Pure Clan breaks from gate 4, under regular rider Julien Leparoux. Since her win in the Golden Rod, her ownership has changed. International Equine Acquisitions Holdings has purchased majority interest in her from Lewis Lakin, while another new partner on board is Pegasus Holding Group.

"I think she's a prototype Oaks filly," said Michael Iavarone, co-president of IEAH Stables. "I think she'll run all day, and she has an affinity for Churchill Downs."

Pure Clan, who has overcome trouble in most of her races, moved into stakes competition last October after winning her maiden and an allowance on turf. She closed from 12th to win the Grade 3 Pocahontas at Churchill in October, then one start later rallied from sixth for a two-length win in the 1 1/16-mile Golden Rod.

"She's had a little difficulty in several races, but the last eighth of a mile she really gets into the game, and hopefully that will continue on," said Bob Holthus, who trains Pure Clan. "She has the desire to win."

Pure Clan was freshened after the Golden Rod, and her preparations for her season debut have gone as planned, said Holthus.

"We didn't miss any works," he said. "We've schooled her in the paddock a couple of times. We've had her to the gates. I think we've done as much as we could have done with her. Our filly is coming in off a layoff, so we don't have the best of it going in, but hopefully, we can overcome that."

Kadira is moving back to two turns for the Honeybee. The last time she raced under such conditions, she was third in the $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway Park. Larry Melancon has the mount for trainer David Vance.