04/17/2002 11:00PM

Having one under belt gives edge

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AUBURN, Wash. - Seventeen 3-year-olds, many of whom seem destined for stakes competition, will be showcased in Saturday's split $50,000 optional claiming feature at Emerald Downs.

All but one of the eight colts and geldings in the 5 1/2-furlong feature's first division will be making their 3-year-old debuts. That gives a significant edge to Chief Yatahay, who has won two of his three starts this year at Golden Gate.

Chief Yatahay won his debut against $20,000 maidens in January, came back to run third against $32,000 starter allowance company in February, and won under those conditions in March, with all three races at six furlongs. Chief Yatahay is trained by Len Kasmerski and will be ridden Saturday by defending Emerald Downs riding champ Ben Russell.

Heading the opposition are Moloch, who won three races and ran third in the prestigious Gottstein Futurity here last summer, and Salt Grinder, who won his only outing at 2 in a highly-rated maiden special weight affair at Emerald.

The second division resembles the first in that only one member of the nine-horse field, Thundering Herd, has raced at 3. Thundering Herd scored his maiden win on the $32,000 level in March at Golden Gate, then ran third and fourth in a pair of $32,000 starter allowances before shipping here.

Trained by Rick Terry, he came within 1 1/4 lengths of Chief Yatahay in his first start against winners.

The divisions will go as the eighth and ninth races on a 10-race program.

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