07/06/2006 11:00PM

It's No Joke on way back to big time

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After It's No Joke was drubbed in back-to-back graded stakes this spring, trainer Becky Maker promised not to be so demanding of the colt in the near future. Maker essentially started over with It's No Joke at her home base, Arlington Park, and started looking for easier races.

So far, so good. won his only race since finishing far back in the Oaklawn Handicap and Ben Ali Stakes when he outran third-level allowance rivals in a June 14 race at Churchill Downs. On Sunday, Maker's plan of moderation will move another step forward when It's No Joke goes postward as one of the logical favorites in the first running of the $70,000 Bet on Sunshine, a seven-furlong race for older horses.

Maker had ample reason to ask a lot of It's No Joke, a 4-year-old Distorted Humor colt owned by Stan Fulton. Starting last October, the colt won 3 of 4 races, then followed up with a terrific effort in the March 4 Gulfstream Park Handicap. It's No Joke finished third, beaten just a length, in that Grade 2 race.

But then came the letdowns: sixth, beaten 13 lengths, in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and sixth again, beaten nearly 19 lengths, in the Grade 3 Ben Ali. Maker regrouped, saying she would not throw It's No Joke to the stakes wolves again until he was better prepared.

The Bet on Sunshine, the featured ninth race on Sunday's 10-race card at Churchill, looks like a worthy steppingstone toward those more lofty goals. The race also drew Straight Line, another Arlington-based runner, whose only two starts at Churchill have resulted in stakes victories. The 4-year-old colt won the Grade 3 Iroquois in the fall of his 2-year-old season, and the Grade 3 Ack Ack versus older horses in the fall of his 3-year-old season.

Besides It's No Joke, who will start from post 4 with Jesus Castanon to ride, and , Pirate King, With Distinction, Rogue Scholar, Pro Prado, Engineered, and Level Playingfield.

One race earlier Sunday, an exceptionally deep allowance sprint drew an accomplished field that includes Greeley's Galaxy, the 2005 Illinois Derby winner. Greeley's Galaxy, who finished fifth in his most recent start, the Feb. 20 All American Handicap at Golden Gate, will be ridden by Rafael Bejarano. The 6 1/2-furlong race also drew Private Horde, an earner of nearly $750,000.