01/06/2005 12:00AM

Indian Express back in a big way at Sunland

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Back in 2003, Bob Baffert unleashed a Panamanian hotshot on the Southern California 3-year-old ranks. A second by a head in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby sent Indian Express to Churchill with dreams of glory and roses. However, at 10-1, Indian Express was never a factor in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 14th of 16, and came out of the race with an injury.

He wasn't seen again until a few weeks ago in an allowance sprint at Sunland when he showed the old speed, dueled early, and drew off late to win a nice allowance race for new trainer Dennis Hall. Now 5 years old, Indian Express apparently is far from through and may well be the one to beat in Saturday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap at Sunland. The one-mile event drew a field of nine.

Indian Express's comeback run was impressive not only because of the result after being gone for 19 months, but also because he blew the start yet still had the speed to be on the lead. He set a six-furlong split of 1:08 on his way to a 1:14.20 clocking and a 92 Beyer Figure for the 6 1/2 furlongs. Indian Express carries 120 pounds on Saturday, and Frank Gonsalves will ride.

But Indian Express had better be all the way back. That's because Two Down Automatic, the 124-pound highweight, is at the top of his game. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Two Down Automatic had a super 2004 season. He was second to Smarty Jones in Oaklawn's Southwest, then won the Northern Spur there. He was third in the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct. After a summer vacation, he failed to threaten in Keeneland's Perryville, but then came here and romped at 3-10 in the Sunland Fall Derby on Nov. 14 and backed it up with an easy win in the Conroe at Sam Houston on Dec. 11.

While his recent activity has been sprinting, his strong route form last winter and spring shows that this trip is right up his alley. Wade Rini rides.