06/30/2006 11:00PM

Lady Grace tries Firecracker repeat


The fourth of July holiday will be celebrated a bit early at Mountaineer Race Track, where three stakes worth $75,000 apiece will be held on Monday night's 10-race program.

They are a pair of one-mile turf races - the Firecracker for fillies and mares, and the Independence Day for older males - plus the 5 1/2-furlong Mountain State on the main track.

Lady Grace, Mountaineer's queen of the turf, goes for her fourth local stakes victory in the Firecracker (race 3). She won last year's Firecracker at 11-1 while carrying a mere 109 pounds. This time, the 8-year-old Lady Grace gets in at 118 pounds, two fewer than she toted winning the Decoration Day Handicap in her first start of the year.

Lady Grace's keenest competition should come from a pair of 4-year-old fillies who ran decently against Grade 3 horses in Kentucky earlier this season.

Ella Belle, based at Churchill Downs with trainer Buff Bradley, held the lead for nearly a mile in the Grade 3 Mint Julep Handicap two weeks ago before weakening in deep stretch. Considering it was her turf debut, it was an excellent effort by Ella Belle, but she now must carry an additional seven pounds as the 121-pound Firecracker highweight.

Special Grayce, trained by Helen Pitts, outran her 28-1 odds when she came from near the back of the pack to finish second in the Grade 3 Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill on Kentucky Derby Day. She never fired, however, in the Mint Julep two weeks later.

Two others with a shot are Kaylan's Rose, beaten two lengths as the favorite in the Decoration Day, and the Todd Pletcher-trained Stormina, who has won 2 of her last 3 starts.

The Independence Day is essentially a rematch of the May 29 Memorial Day Handicap. The first five finishers from that race, led by winner Solo Cat, are back at the same one-mile distance. Hoping to turn the tables are Touched by Madness, Spruce Run, Parker Run, and Cherokee Prince, along with ninth-place finisher Bavarian Baron.

The horse most likely to improve from that group is Spruce Run, an 8-year-old who gets in at 109 pounds - 12 fewer than he carried in the Memorial Day - while making the second start of his form cycle.

Among the new faces are Estevan, beaten by fewer than four lengths in the Grade 2 San Gabriel at Santa Anita in January; Buckeye Buddy, a decisive winner over second-level allowance runners at Churchill last time out; and Be My Buddy, who ships in off a win at Pimlico for high-percentage trainer Graham Motion.

In the Mountain State (race 9), The Student goes for his fifth straight victory at his fifth different track.

Trainer Scott Lake has taken The Student, a 7-year-old gelding with 18 lifetime victories, on a tour up and down the East Coast. Since March, The Student has won at Aqueduct, Pimlico, Charles Town, and Delaware, earning triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in all but one of his last four starts.

Also dangerous are P. Kerney, first or second in his last four races, including a victory in the seven-furlong Northern Wolf at Laurel, and Yucatan, who switches surfaces after winning a minor turf sprint stakes at Churchill. The 5-year-old Yucatan has 3 wins and 2 seconds in 5 previous starts locally.