10/20/2011 3:14PM

Hawthorne: All Shrewd Operator needs is clean break in Lightning Jet

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STICKNEY, Ill. – In his last two Illinois-bred sprint-stakes starts at Hawthorne, Shrewd Operator went to post at odds of 4-5 and even money. One second into both races, his many backers were looking for a refund.

In the Robert S. Molaro here this past spring, Shrewd Operator hopped at the start and was seventh just strides into the race. He rushed into the pace, tired, and came home sixth. The story was similar last fall in the Lightning Jet, where Shrewd Operator broke last and failed to make the lead, finishing an even sixth. Here is a horse capable of rousing front-end victories, but only if he gets away cleanly.

“There’s no question he’s put himself in some tough spots at times when he doesn’t break sharp,” said trainer Chris Block. “Bottom line, he’s not the best of gate horses.”

Shrewd Operator figures to be a big favorite once again in the Lightning Jet Handicap, one of six Illinois-bred stakes races on an appealing program Saturday at Hawthorne. The statebred-restricted stakes (races 4,5,6,8,9, and 10) feature purses bumped to around $125,000 this year thanks to prize money made available by the release of casino impact-fee funds in August.

On individual Beyer Speed Figures, Shrewd Operator is one of the fastest horses in the country during 2011. When last he raced, in the White Oak Stakes on June 25, Shrewd Operator broke adequately from post 1, zipped to the lead, and won by nine lengths, a sizzling six-furlong Polytrack performance that produced a 114 Beyer. A minor physical issue cost Shrewd Operator summer training time, but he has worked steadily since September.

His main rival is River Bear, who won the 2010 Lightning Jet and lost a head-bob in the Molaro last April. River Bear also is unraced since the White Oak but has posted blazing recent works at Fairmount Park.

Denham will try to fire fresh

Denham would look stronger in the Bucks Boy Handicap had trainer Tom Dorris found a prep race for his horse. But Dorris could not, and Denham will try to win the 1 1/16-mile Bucks Boy, his first start since June 25, with only morning work for preparation.

“I wanted to run him, but nothing came up,” said trainer Tom Dorris.

Denham, a $5,000 starter-allowance horse for most of 2010, found new peak form through last winter and into the spring, winning the Milwaukee Avenue Handicap over this distance here last spring by almost three lengths. Denham has worked steadily since late summer, but his trainer is far from certain that the horse is adequately fit.

“I don’t know if I have enough bottom in him or not,” Dorris said. “He came back real good, and he’s doing good and everything. It’s just if he’s tight enough.”

Hydro Power might try to win the Bucks Boy on the lead. Racing Bran has the credentials to contend. The pick is Color Me Blue, who rallied furiously to finish third, beaten less than a length, in the 2010 Bucks Boy.

Dirt benefits Dundalk Dust

Over at Arlington, on turf and Polytrack, Peyote Patty has an edge on stablemate Dundalk Dust, but Hawthorne dirt turns things 180 degrees.

Dundalk Dust won the Illini Princess here last fall by almost three lengths before going on to win the Grade 2 Falls City at Churchill, and she should be favored Saturday to make it two straight in the Illini Princess. Peyote Patty, Dundalk Dust’s equal at Arlington, has failed to win in seven dirt starts.

Dundalk Dust suffered from internal issues that threw her whole system out of whack the first half of this year. It was only in her most recent start, a Sept. 17 turf race at Arlington, that she began looking like the same horse again.

“I think she is getting back to herself,” trainer Chris Block said.

Late-running Dundalk Dust should get a favorable setup in the 1 1/16-mile race with several pace players also entered.

Twelve Hundred back to sprinting

Trainer Jim DiVito makes no bones about Twelve Hundred’s strongest asset.

“Speed,” DiVito said. “That’s his best game.”

Twelve Hundred led all the way winning the first two starts of his career, but failed to make the lead Sept. 10 in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, fading to eighth. A drop in class and a distance cut from one mile to six furlongs Saturday could make Twelve Hundred tough to beat in the Sun Power Stakes for 2-year-olds.

But he has to get past Feels Like Flying, a Christine Janks-trained gelding who impressively won the first two starts of his career. Feels Like Flying exits a turf route and his debut sprint victory came on Polytrack, but he worked a sharp five furlongs Sept. 29 at Hawthorne and might prove equally capable on dirt.

Saturday’s 2-year-old-filly stakes, the Showtime Deb, drew a less accomplished group than the Sun Power. Long-layoff comebacker and dirt-debuting Aviyah Shines may be favored – and vulnerable.

Third Chance obvious standout

In Third Chance, DiVito sends out the heavy favorite for the Powerless, a six-furlong sprint for older females. Third Chance was tried in longer races earlier in the year and struggled, but has won her last three starts – all sprints – by more than 20 combined lengths.

“I think the key to her is running her between six and seven furlongs,” said DiVito.

Ripe Tomato, Wild Hope, and Rose Mountain may be running for second.