10/29/2004 12:00AM

Late-blooming Habaneros hitting his stride


LEXINGTON, Ky. - When you're hot, you're hot. And if Habaneros were any hotter, his groom couldn't bear to touch him. A 5-year-old gelded son of Tabasco Cat, Habaneros has come through layoffs and adversity to become a successful racehorse, winning three races this year and scoring his first stakes victory in last Saturday's Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet.

A powerful and very handsome horse, Habaneros was a well-intended young racehorse. He sold for $105,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale, making him the fifth-highest lot by his sire in 2000.

Habaneros is now one of 22 stakes winners sired by Tabasco Cat, and is one of six stakes winners for him this year. The sire's other graded stakes winners in 2004 are Grade 1 winner Island Sand and Grade 2 winner Freefourinternet.

Winner of the Preakness and Belmont, Tabasco Cat, a chestnut son of Storm Cat, entered stud at William T. Young's Overbrook Farm near Lexington in 1995 and stood there until he was sold to stand in Japan. The Japanese Bloodstock Breeders' Association bought the horse for $7 million in the fall of 2000 and stood him at the Shizunai Stallion Station on Hokkaido. He died there of a heart attack earlier this year at age 13.

At the time of his sale, Tabasco Cat had sired only four stakes winners. Not long afterward, however, the top sprinter Snow Ridge and the high-class juvenile filly Habibti both became Grade 1 winners. Despite Habibti's successes in the Del Mar Debutante and Hollywood Starlet, the majority of Tabasco Cat's stock have improved greatly with maturity, and that was also the case with Habaneros.

Habaneros has won 4 of 11 races over four seasons. Raced once at 2, the chestnut did not start for more than a year before returning to race four times at 3. He always picked up a check at 3, but began his third season of competition as a maiden.

Habaneros earned his maiden victory in his first start at 4 in a maiden special at Santa Anita going a mile on turf. He had raced five times in five months when he won that race in January 2003. He ran next in April 2003, finishing eighth, and did not start again for 15 months, until July of this year.

Although he had won only once from his first seven starts, Habaneros has won 3 of 4 starts since his comeback this year. He returned in a $25,000 claiming race, which he won. Then Habaneros won an allowance for nonwinners of a race other than maiden or claiming. Second by three-quarters of a length in a starter allowance, Habaneros was gamely placed in the Carleton F. Burke for his stakes debut.

His performance, leading all the way to win by three-quarters of a length in 2:26.91, was just as gutsy. Now he is the second graded stakes winner from his dam, the Gone West mare Innocently Astray.

Habaneros is the second foal from Innocently Astray, and her third is Grade 3 winner Region of Merit (by Touch Gold). A $475,000 Saratoga select yearling in 2001, Region of Merit won the Tampa Bay Derby last year. The mare's 3-year-old is a full brother to Region of Merit named Vermeil, and her 2-year-old is a Deputy Minister filly called Quiet Optimism.

Both stakes winners were bred and sold by Louie Roussel.

"I raced the mare myself," said Roussel, "after I'd purchased her at the September sale as a yearling" in 1992 for $150,000.

Trained by Roussel, Innocently Astray, "was a good racehorse, was stakes placed, should have been a stakes winner," he said.

Racing for Roussel, Innocently Astray earned $131,299. At 3, she was second in the 1994 Sweetest Chant and third in the Thelma. Then at 4, she was second in the Chou Croute Handicap and third in the Four Winds stakes.

Roussel said, "She was about 15-2 hands and was a typical Gone West. Those Gone West mares have beautiful heads. They can run, too."

Roussel sold the mare at the Keeneland November sale in 2003 for $230,000 to Swifty Farms. The mare was in foal to Dixie Union and produced a "really exceptional foal," according to Swifty's general manager, Larry Smallwood. Smallwood noted that although they "didn't have the good fortune to get her back in foal, we may send her to England and breed her to Singspiel next year, because I think he's a rising star on the horizon."

The same might be true of Habaneros, who will have plenty of opportunities for racing middle distances on turf in California in the next few months.