03/28/2007 11:00PM

Late bloomer Neko Bay still has room to improve


ARCADIA, Calif. - Racing conversations are supposed to focus on 3-year-olds at this time of year and not a lightly raced 4-year-old. Trainer John Shirreffs is happy to discuss both.

Shirreffs is equally excited about the long-term prospects of Neko Bay, a 4-year-old who starts in Saturday's $100,000 Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita, and Tiago, a 3-year-old half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo who runs in next week's Santa Anita Derby.

Neko Bay developed too slowly to be a factor in the 2006 Triple Crown, then missed most of his 3-year-old season with injury. Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Neko Bay has started once since May, winning an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Feb. 2.

"He has the world of racing in front of him," Shirreffs said. "Hopefully, he'll move up after his race off a layoff. He seems to have handled things very well."

Shirreffs is hoping that Neko Bay can develop into a candidate for the Hollywood Gold Cup this summer. A colt by Giant's Causeway, Neko Bay has won 3 of 4 starts, with his only loss a second in the Alydar Stakes at Hollywood Park last May. In that race over 1 1/8 miles, Neko Bay broke poorly and recovered to finish 1 3/4 lengths behind Blazing Sunset.

Neko Bay was found to have a leg injury after that race, but did not require surgery, Shirreffs said.

"He's a Giant's Causeway and they seem to get better with age and maturity," Shirreffs said. "In his workouts, he always finishes well. He never weakens. He's had a lot of time between races."

Neko Bay has drawn the rail in a field of six in the 1 1/8-mile Tokyo City.

The race has drawn a modest field. Preachinatthebar, the winner of the Windy Sands Handicap at Del Mar last summer, is the only member of the field with a stakes win in the last year. Trained by Bob Baffert, Preachinatthebar is the 117-pound highweight.

Racketeer and Yes He's a Pistol have run well this year. Racketeer has won 2 of his last 3 starts, all in optional claimers. He finished second to Neko Bay on Feb. 2.

Yes He's a Pistol was third in the Santana Mile on March 11, a race he won in 2006.

Fairbanks, sixth in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 4, and Beneath the Radar, the winner of an optional claimer in January, are also entered.