04/21/2003 11:00PM

Highway has headed south


ALBANY, Calif. - That was then.

"He has so much natural ability, as much as any horse I've ever had. He could be absolutely anything," trainer Brent Sumja said of Federal Highway before his nose victory in the James F. Lyttle Memorial Handicap at Santa Rosa last summer.

This is now.

Federal Highway is the probable favorite among eight runners in Thursday's feature at Bay Meadows, a one-mile turf race for $25,000 claimers.

Federal Highway comes off a wire-to-wire victory in a $25,000 claiming race that was the first race of the meeting. That victory was his first in seven starts since his game victory over Blue Slew's Shoes in the Lyttle.

Among the horses who beat him during that stretch were Halo Cat, Boss Ego, and Presidio Heights.

Sumja, in fact, may take some consolation from the loss to Presidio Heights, who has won the Danville and Atherton handicaps in his two starts since meeting Federal Highway in a $32,000 claimer. Like Federal Highway, Presidio Heights was dropped into the claiming ranks and rebuilt his confidence.

Southern California imports Saphir Indien, Gravitate, and Greenhills appear to be Federal Highway's chief rivals, but Federal Highway's four career victories equal the combined total of those three rivals.

A memorable day

When Lacie Girl got her nose in front of Fertile for second in the Woodside Handicap last Sunday, Russell Baze finally finished ahead of Roberto Gonzalez in a stakes race. Baze had finishing second behind Gonzalez in five stakes in the past month. But Baze will remember Sunday for a different reason.

Baze was aboard heavily favored Sumati, who drew the rail in a 1 1/16-mile turf race. Sumati dwelt in the gate, walked out, turned left, and walked into the rail as Baze jumped off. Neither horse nor rider was injured.

"I was ready to go when the gate opened, but he wasn't," Baze said. "I was leaning forward, but he didn't move. When I got him out of the gate, I got scared because I was looking ahead and he was turning to the left, but he wasn't going fast at all. I don't know what happened."

* Trainer Jeff Bonde may have finished third with Fertile on Sunday, but he was the winner of a Kentucky Derby trip sponsored by the Glen Ellen Vocational Academy in one of its biggest fundraisers of the year.