06/05/2007 12:00AM

Just for Keeps tests Azalea waters


MIAMI - A potential starting berth in next month's Grade 3 Azalea Breeders' Cup Stakes could be up for grabs here Thursday when the undefeated and untested 3-year-old filly Just for Keeps faces older horses while also stretching out to seven furlongs for the first time in the $28,000 allowance feature.

Just for Keeps has won her first two starts by an average margin of 6 1/2 lengths, with the two victories coming 10 months apart. The daughter of Broken Vow won her career debut by six lengths against the grain of a biased racetrack in July 2006, then did not return until May 14 when she won a first-level allowance dash going six furlongs by seven widening lengths.

Mike McDonald, who trains Just for Keeps for the Matthews Stable, said he might use Thursday's race as a prep for the six-furlong Azalea, one of four graded stakes on the $2 million Summit of Speed program on July 7.

"Mr. Matthews has given this filly lots of time, and I know he's not crazy just to jump right into a race like the Azalea," McDonald said. "But if she were to run big on Thursday, it might entice him to think about it. We'll just see how this one goes before we seriously start discussing the stakes."

Despite the fact Just for Keeps has yet to face older horses or race beyond six furlongs, McDonald is quietly confident she'll overcome both obstacles without any problem.

"She has good speed but she'll also rate," McDonald said. "It's not like she has to be on the lead, and I believe she'll go long, so I don't think seven furlongs will be a problem for her. She's done everything right up to this point and has trained very well since her last win. She's a filly who appears to have a lot of talent, but you never really know where you stand until you throw them in against good horses, and this will be a nice test for her on Thursday."

McDonald has another promising 3-year-old filly in his barn, Flankers Lady, whom he scratched out of an entry-level allowance dash Saturday. Like Just for Keeps, Flankers Lady was an impressive winner of her only 2-year-old start when tallying by 7 1/4 widening lengths on Aug. 12.

Flankers Lady, a daughter of Outflanker, is owned by Austin Delaney.

"Mr. Delaney turned down an offer of $400,000 for her after she won her first start," McDonald said. "But after that win, she began to act like she wasn't comfortable when she galloped. She had nothing specific wrong with her, but I decided just to send her home and give her time."

Flankers Lady turned in several works at the Classic Mile training center in Ocala before returning to McDonald's barn last month. She also had been working well locally in preparation for her much-anticipated return Saturday.

"I scoped her before the race and she had a fungal infection that didn't clear up, so I scratched her," McDonald explained. "She and Just for Keeps were workmates as 2-year-olds and talent-wise I think they are very similar."

Gold starts strong with 2-year-olds

Last spring, Kathleen O'Connell dominated the early 2-year-old races around these parts. This season that honor belongs to trainer Stanley Gold, who has already sent out three juvenile first-time starters to capture maiden special weight dashes since the meet began April 25.

Gold's latest 2-year-old winner was Brooks 'n Down, who overcame an unlucky start and tough trip to run down the leaders for an eye-catching win here Sunday. Earlier in the session, stablemates Casino Gambler and Honey Honey Honey registered easy debut victories. All three horses are owned by Fred and Jane Brei's Jacks or Better Farm Inc.

"I was real depressed at the half-mile pole on Sunday because I thought he had been eliminated at the start," Shaw said of Brooks 'n Down. "Then all of a sudden, he started to make a run, and by the time they came into the stretch, I could see he was going to get there. It was a very nice win, especially since he learned a little something from that kind of trip. The other two babies just toyed with their fields, but this one really earned it."

Gold said all three of his 2-year-old winners are eligible for the Florida Stallion Stakes, although he's not sure who will run just where next.

"There's a prep coming up here on June 16th for the Criterium Stakes, which is on July 7," Gold said, adding that he's also looking at the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs, also July 7. "All three are ready to go 5 1/2 furlongs. I'd like to keep them apart for now if I can. It's a nice problem to have."

Gold is in his second full year training locally for the Ocala-based Jacks or Better Farm.

"I've had my trainer's license since 1978 but had only a few horses for most of that time," Gold said. "I worked as an assistant here for trainer Jim Hatchett for seven years, then went to Ocala in 2002. I was approached by Jacks or Better to come down here with their horses last year and I've got 20 for them right now, although I still consider myself a public trainer should somebody else want to send me some horses."

Heart attack kills Gower

Gower, an impressive allowance winner here May 28, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack shortly after completing a five-furlong work in 1:02 here early Tuesday morning. The 5-year-old son of Mecke rallied to a 2 3/4-length optional claiming win in the final start of his career. Gower had finished second to the graded stakes winner Weigelia in the Ponche Handicap earlier in the meet.

Gower was trained by James Bracken for owner Micki Bracken. Jockey Carlos Olivero, who was aboard for the work, apparently escaped without injury.