05/26/2006 12:00AM

Jambalaya out to fill big shoes

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - The recent retirement of the reigning Canadian Horse of the Year, A Bit O'Gold, has left a hole in trainer Catherine Day Phillips's barn.

Jambalaya, a successful runner in his own right, will try to fill that void this year. He should be among the favorites in Sunday's Grade 3, $150,000 Connaught Cup, the first turf stakes of the Woodbine meeting.

Jambalaya, a large Langfuhr gelding, captured his first four grass starts last summer, including the third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Stakes. He displayed lots of determination in the Grade 3 Saranac at Saratoga, winning by a nose after a heated stretch battle with Silver Whistle.

Jambalaya finished third after a wide trip near a slow pace in the one-mile allowance prep for the Connaught, his first start of 2006. Day Phillips said she was pleased with Jambalaya's comeback, suggesting that it was a useful springboard towards longer races.

"I thought he ran very well," Day Phillips said. "He got a lot out of it, and he's been very focused since then. I think it woke him up a little."

American shippers Remarkable News and Willard Straight are also entered in the 1 1/16-mile Connaught Cup, along with six others.

Remarkable News, trained by Angel Penna Jr., is exiting two consecutive allowance victories. Most recently, on April 15 at Keeneland, he defeated three next-out winners, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 104.

Willard Straight, trained by Todd Pletcher, wound up third in an April 20 allowance at Keeneland following a seven-month layoff.

Le Cinquieme Essai, last year's Connaught winner, has been absent since running third in the Grade 1 Atto Mile at Woodbine in September.

Trainer Paul Nielsen said Le Cinquieme Essai came out of the Atto with a high suspensory problem, which required a three-month vacation.

"There was no tear, but he was really tender on it," Nielsen said. "We were lucky enough that he didn't hurt it badly. It was more of a strain than a pull. The timing was perfect - he was going to get some time off in the winter anyhow."

Nielsen said he's expecting a strong showing from Le Cinquieme Essai, who won the Sovereign Award as Canada's champion 3-year-old in 2002.

"He's in great shape, and he runs well fresh," Nielsen said. "He's just as good as he was going into it last year. He's ready to run a winning race, but if he doesn't, it's not the end of the world."