05/06/2004 11:00PM

Lasting Code's comeback cranks up

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AUBURN, Wash. - When Lasting Code underwent surgery to remove ankle chips following her brilliant 3-year-old campaign in 2002, owner Jerre Paxton and trainer Bob McMeans could afford to give her all the time she needed, and then some. The two had Strikes No Spares to contest last year's older filly and mare stakes, with 3-year-old star Bisbee's Prospect waiting in the wings.

Strikes No Spares and Bisbee's Prospect are now retired, with the former being bred to Belong to Me and the latter to Touch Gold. It's time for Lasting Code to step up.

Whether Lasting Code, now 5, can recapture the form that saw her win four stakes here as a 3-year-old is one of the more compelling questions that could be answered in Sunday's 6 1/2-furlong Hastings Park Handicap at Emerald Downs. She will be making her first start against stakes company since winning the Washington Breeders' Cup Oaks on Aug. 18, 2002, but she did get to prep in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance here on April 17.

In that race, Lasting Code went directly to the front and discouraged two other pace rivals, but she could not stave off the late charge of Ruby Dawn and settled for second, beaten a length in 1:02.80.

"It wasn't quite what we were looking for," McMeans said. "We didn't want her on the lead, where she would have to go all out all the way. That's not the way to bring a horse back after such a long layoff. She was fresh, though, and she wanted to go. I think she got a lot out of that race, so I'm not all that disappointed."

Lasting Code came back to register a pair of workouts, including a five-furlong drill in 59.80 seconds last Sunday, and her trainer feels she is ready for a top try.

"She is really good now, both physically and mentally, so we're hoping she can fulfill her potential," said McMeans. "Part of the reason Jerre decided to retire Strikes No Spares and Bisbee's Prospect is that we had this mare coming back. We're counting on her now."

McMeans said he has another batch of well-bred juveniles in training for Paxton. They are a filly by Belong to Me from a Seattle Slew mare, a filly by Kris S. out of a Danzig mare, a filly by Forestry from a Linkage mare, and a colt by Theatrical out of a Jade Hunter mare. The trainer hopes to start all four at this meeting.

Aunt Sophie back from California

Another who will be returning to Emerald Downs after a long absence on Sunday is Aunt Sophie, who won the Paragon Handicap here as a 3-year-old in 2001. Now 6, Aunt Sophie has spent much of the last two years campaigning in northern California.

"I sent her down to Jeff Bonde in the fall of 2002, and she did so well I just left her down there," said her owner, breeder, and trainer, Dr. Charles Barth. "She liked the surfaces at Bay Meadows and at the fair tracks, and we liked having the option of running her on the turf."

Aunt Sophie raced only four times last year, but she won the one-mile Santa Clara Handicap at Bay Meadows by 1 3/4 lengths, beating multiple stakes winner Lacie Girl, and the 1 1/16-mile Alameda County Fair Handicap at Pleasanton by two lengths over prolific earner A B Noodle. Her owner felt that might be enough to earn Washington-bred older filly and mare of the year honors, but she lost out in the voting to Infernal McGoon, who won a pair of local stakes.

"I guess you've got to win your races here to get full recognition, and that's part of the reason I brought her back," Barth said. "It's fun to have her back in my barn, too. I enjoy training her."

Barth said he put Aunt Sophie back into training on Feb. 1, and she hasn't missed a beat.

"She worked really well right from the beginning, and she is coming into this race about as good as I can get her," he said. "Obviously I'm looking forward to running her in the route stakes, but she runs well fresh and she has won at 5 1/2 furlongs.

"She just has a real good move from the quarter pole to the wire, and it can be effective at any distance as long as she can close over the track. This track can be tough on closers at times, and I just hope it is playing fair on Sunday."

Castle Mountain in Hastings 'Cap

Trainer Grant Forster is long on quality older fillies and mares this season, so he is spreading them around. Forster, who won seven stakes here last season, has last year's horse of the meeting, Youcan'ttakeme, and Mavoreen at Chicago's Hawthorne Park, where Mavoreen recently ran third in the Grade 3 Sixty Sails Handicap.

For the Hastings Park Handicap, he will saddle Castle Mountain, a 6-year-old daughter of Mountain Cat who won her first start last year going 6 1/2 furlongs over this track with a Beyer of 86. Castle Mountain has been in training this spring with Forster's father, Dave Forster, at Hastings.

"She'll be doing most of her racing at Hastings this year, but the timing just worked out right for her to make her first start here," said Grant Forster. "My dad says she is training great, and she always seems to run well fresh, so we're hopeful that she'll run a big race."