12/18/2008 12:00AM

Hug it Out faster than recent figures

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Fair Grounds begins its five stakes Saturday with the Letellier Memorial, the betting public figures to largely view the six-furlong race as a two-filly matchup between She's Extreme and Leigh McLovin.

Contention runs deeper than that. All six entrants have a shot, and one in particular - Hug It Out - looks dangerous at a price.

At 5-1 on the morning line, Hug It Out will likely not receive the proper mutuel respect, despite coming off a competitive fourth-place finish in the Pontalba Stakes in her first start over the track.

The reason? Lesser recent Beyer Speed Figures. The Pontalba was a poorly rated race on Beyer Figures, unfolding with a fast pace and a slow finish.

Hug It Out, beaten 1 3/4 lengths in the Pontalba, earned a 59 Beyer, the lowest last-race figure of the Letellier entrants. That followed a starter allowance race at Keeneland in which she posted a Beyer of 60.

I'm expecting a faster performance Saturday. She ran quickly in the first two starts of her four-race career, and she had a legitimate excuse for regression in the Pontalba. A filly accustomed to pressing the pace, she was taken out of her game when the leaders blitzed in the early stages of the race, resulting in her falling back to fifth early.

With less speed in the Letellier, Hug It Out should get the trip she enjoys - pressing moderate fractions on the outside. Utilizing that style, she posted an 82 Beyer in finishing second in a Keeneland allowance race Oct. 4 - an effort that, if repeated, would make her competitive with She's Extreme and Leigh McLovin.

As for She's Extreme and Leigh McLovin, they are talented runners. She's Extreme comes off an allowance win at Churchill Downs over Pretty Prolific, a graded-placed filly, and Leigh McLovin, who has a second and a win in two starts, is a massive filly that should improve as she matures.

But neither is a sure thing, and at 5-1, Hug It Out is a legitimate contender at a square price.

Sugar Bowl

The 2-year-old male counterpart to the Letellier at Fair Grounds Saturday, the Sugar Bowl, drew a deeper field of 12, and seemingly a more talented group.

Merkel, at 9-2, is the morning-line favorite, but I suspect the public choice will be It Happened Again, who surprisingly was made 8-1 on the line after whipping maidens at Philadelphia Park in fast time.

It Happened Again starts for the same owner/trainer tandem as those behind Proud Spell - the combo being former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones and trainer Larry Jones. And coming off a bullet work over the local surface, the Proud Citizen colt is likely to command attention starting for his successful connections.

My value-based play is the other Jones-trained runner in the field, Doc's Friend, who should be a fat price, particularly if his stablemate gets hammered in the wagering.

Although Doc's Friend's form isn't as flashy as others, he professionally won a maiden race Nov. 11 at Delaware Park in his fourth start, and is appealing as far as likely being the larger price of two uncoupled stablemates.

By putting Doc's Friend in the Sugar Bowl along with It Happened Again, Jones is showing confidence in Doc's Friend - and with good reason. Before Doc's Friend's maiden win, the colt ran third in a Delaware Park maiden race behind stablemate Old Fashioned, the subsequent winner of the Grade 2 Remsen.

To illustrate the point that a larger-priced uncoupled trainer entry is fully capable of winning, take note that Doc's Friend was 3-1 that day - compared to 12-1 on Old Fashioned.

Gowell Stakes

Saturday's Gowell Stakes at Turfway presents a handicapping challenge, with 7 of the 11 entrants in the six-furlong race moving from dirt to Polytrack.

My choice is Lady's Laughter - a juvenile filly who has shown promise on dirt, but also a horse with a pedigree to take to a synthetic surface. A $450,000 yearling, she is by Distorted Humor, the 15th-leading sire in North America based on progeny earnings on all-weather surfaces.

My hope is that the public bypasses her somewhat, viewing her fifth-place finish at Keeneland over Polytrack in October as evidence that she might not care for the surface.

I'm willing to forgive that race. It was her debut, and inexperience, not a dislike for the surface, may have been the reason for her off-the-board finish.

On the strength of a fast maiden victory at Churchill on Nov. 20 and her rich sales price and pedigree, she deserves another synthetic chance in the Gowell.