10/05/2006 11:00PM

Juveniles in Norfolk face acid test

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PHOENIX - Sunday's Grade 2 Norfolk at Oak Tree at Santa Anita will have a ripple effect on the division.

Not only is winning this race important on its own merit, but also a big run earns a horse a ticket to Churchill Downs and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Nov. 4. A big run in both races might well punch another ticket - again for Churchill Downs, but this time for the first Saturday in May.

Save for injured EZ Warrior and Great Hunter, who opted for Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity instead, the best of the West are here for this 1 1/16-mile Norfolk. It will be crucial in assessing the talent of the participants, as well as in determining whether they can handle a distance.

Here are the main contenders:

Principle Secret - Like his main rival Horse Greeley, he's bred to go at least 1 1/16 miles, although he hasn't tried it yet. One concern is that he hasn't run in two months. After a super maiden win over Horse Greeley, he came back to be even more impressive to win the Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar Aug. 13. He now tacks on two more furlongs and the extra turn, with the layoff tossed in for good measure. The good news is he has shown versatility and he has worked strongly of late for trainer Christopher Paasch.

He has plenty of talent, and since he is unbeaten and basically untested in two starts, he is the likely favorite, and you have to figure the race goes through him.

Horse Greeley - He looms a major player based on his strong win in the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity Sept. 8. A large, strapping son of Mr. Greeley, out of the fine routing mare Chile Chatte, he prompted the pace that day, took over into the lane, and finished strongly to win clear. That gave him two wins in a row after finishing second in his debut to Principle Secret. His three races have come at 5 1/2, 6 1/2, and seven furlongs, and he tackles another furlong and a half and another turn.

"I don't anticipate the distance being a problem, but you never know until you do it," said trainer Richard Mandella.

Spot the Diplomat - He has loads of speed, and being by Worldly Manner you would think he could go at least this far. He's rattled off three straight wins, and while all three have come against California-breds, he deserves this shot based on the way he won those races. He figures to bolt right out to the lead and have his speed take him as far as it can. Trouble is, Stormello doesn't figure to hand him an easy lead.

Stormello - He chased Principle Secret home in the Best Pal, then ended up third behind Horse Greeley in the Del Mar Futurity, but he wasn't embarrassed in either. Like Spot the Diplomat, speed is his primary asset.

Malt Magic - He may be only a maiden winner, but he's the only horse in this race with proven two-turn main-track ability. A son of Cherokee Run and trained by Bob Baffert, he romped by almost 10 lengths at Del Mar Sept. 4 at a mile. He jumped right out to make the lead, opened up a commanding lead, and cruised home in hand with plenty left. These are much tougher, but his proven route ability isn't to be taken lightly.

And the winner is . . .

The distance question may not be as crucial as many think. The jump from seven furlongs or so to this 1 1/16-mile trip isn't that severe, and many of these all face the same hurdle.

Malt Magic is certainly a viable price play since he is the only proven router. But Principle Secret has not yet been asked for anything near his best. Principle Secret has one glaring issue - the layoff - but as long as that isn't a sign of something gone awry he can win this race and throw down the gauntlet to Circular Quay, Scat Daddy, and the rest of the best of them come Nov. 4.