04/20/2004 11:00PM

Keys to victory: Speed, speed, speed


AUBURN, Wash. - The ninth Emerald Downs season began in much the same fashion as its predecessors. A potent speed bias dominated the action, and at least a couple of brilliant performances were turned in.

How tough was the speed? No fewer than 18 of the 26 winners over the first three days of racing led virtually every step of the way, including eight of the nine winners on Sunday.

Neither the speed bias nor a lightning-fast surface could fully account for Willie the Cat's performance in Friday's 5 1/2-furlong allowance feature, however. Under Ricky Frazier, Willie the Cat led the extremely fast Danzilation by a length through a quarter-mile in 21.20 seconds and a half in 43.40, then powered away through the stretch to win off by 7 3/4 lengths over the late-running Slewicide Cruise in 1:01.20. The clocking broke Salt Grinder's 2002 track record of 1:01.40, and nearly equaled the world mark of 1:01.10, set by Plenty Zloty in 1995 at Turf Paradise.

"Willie's back," said Frazier. "It was unbelievable how fast he went, and the most amazing part is that I had horse left at the end."

Willie the Cat, a 5-year-old son of Delineator and Cozy Angie bred by owner Ron Crockett, improved his record at Emerald Downs to four wins in as many outings for trainer Tim McCanna. He raced here three times as a 3-year-old, winning a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight race in 1:02.20 - a track record until Salt Grinder broke it about an hour later - and twice defeating optional claiming company at 6 1/2 furlongs by a combined margin of nine lengths.

Much was expected of Willie the Cat after those performances, but he developed a problem in his hind end that was never definitively diagnosed, causing him to miss the last six months of his 3-year-old season and almost all of his 4-year-old campaign. When he returned last December at Hollywood Park for trainer Doug O'Neill, Willie the Cat ran sixth and last in an optional claiming event at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf and then was off another 3 1/2 months before running ninth of 10 in a six-furlong optional claimer at Golden Gate on March 25.

"We discovered a really nasty-looking ulceration in his throat after the race at Hollywood, so we had to let that heal," said Crockett. "He was fine for the Golden Gate race, but he stumbled at the start and got away very poorly. We were hoping he'd do better this time."

Willie the Cat did so well that McCanna made him eligible for Sunday's $40,000 Seattle Handicap before nominations closed last Saturday. If he goes, Willie the Cat seems likely to be favored in a small field that will include local stakes winner Leather N Lace, Canadian invader Illusive Force, and Chilean import Zona de Impacto.

'Flicka' flashes speed in U.S. Bank

The speed bias was well established by the time Sunday's $40,000 U.S. Bank Stakes was run at six furlongs, but it wasn't easy to determine which of the 11 3-year-old fillies who lined up in the gate would have the early lead. It might have been helpful to know what owner Gary Thompson knew about his Sunland Park invader, Sandia's Flicka.

"She was beating Quarter Horses at 440 yards before she ever raced against Thoroughbreds," said Thompson, referring to unrecognized match races. "They couldn't keep up with her."

Sandia's Flicka broke like a Quarter Horse under Sunland riding champ Daryl Montoya, putting a length on the rest of the field in the opening strides. Flying Phantom pressured her from the outside through a quarter-mile in 21.60 seconds, however, and Melba Jewel moved up along the rail to engage her after a half in 44.20.

Sandia's Flicka and Melba Jewel dueled the length of the stretch, with first one and then the other appearing to have the advantage, but when they hit the wire in 1:09.20, Sandia's Flicka led by a nose.

"She showed her tenacity," said Montoya. "That was an all-out effort."

Sandia's Flicka, a Texas-bred daughter of Sandia Slew, sold for just $750 at a yearling sale in New Mexico. Thompson said he originally leased her from her owner for $1 per year, but purchased her outright for $7,500 before turning her over to trainer Rick Terry last fall.

She won two of six starts for Terry at Sunland Park, including an allowance victory over older rivals in her final start there on March 28.

Terry and Baze tied with three wins

Terry, a regular at Emerald for the past several seasons, also won with the Sunland-raced Northwest Attitude on Friday and Thunzarr on Saturday to move into a tie for leading trainer. Robbie Baze, who had been campaigning at Portland Meadows, also saddled three winners.

Recent racing constituted a big advantage through opening weekend. Though only 48 of the 180 horses who raced, or 27 percent, had run since March 1, they won 11 of the 26 races, or 42 percent.

* Emerald handled $1,192,967 on Friday, including $821,437 on the track's eight live races. The figures are not directly comparable to the $1,570,132 handled on last season's Saturday opener, which included $1,087,996 wagered on nine live races.