03/22/2012 1:51PM

Laurel: Eighttofasttocatch faces questions on stretch-out

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Eighttofasttocatch, a four-time stakes winner in 2011, is the track's 4-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's Harrison Johnson Memorial.

Based on his form in 2011, it’s hard to knock Eighttofasttocatch. He won 5 of 10 starts, including four stakes at his home track, Laurel Park. Whether the now 6-year-old Eighttofasttocatch is ready to pick up where he left off last year, however, is debatable.

Eighttofasttocatch certainly deserves to be favored when he seeks to defend his title in the $100,000 Harrison Johnson Memorial Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on Saturday. But there are also a couple of red flags that may tempt handicappers shopping for a better price to look elsewhere in the six-horse field.

Making his first start of the season following a 2 1/2-month break, Eighttofasttocatch was hardly disgraced when he finished fourth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths, despite having to steady in the midst of his rally in the Grade 2 General George Handicap on Feb. 20. But he will now be asked to stretch out an additional quarter-mile, a sprint-to-route move that is not among trainer Tim Keefe’s strengths. Over the past five years, Keefe is 0 for 19 with horses going from sprints to routes while making the second start of their form cycle and an equally icy 0 for 18 with stretch-out sprinters returning from an absence of 31 to 60 days. Eighttofasttocatch falls into both those statistical categories.

Keefe said that based on how Eighttofasttocatch is training, he should run well on Saturday.

“He is coming into the race in fantastic shape, just as well as last year if not better,” Keefe said. “This race was a springboard for us last year and hopefully it does the same. I have a couple of ideas for him this year but like to take things one race at a time.”

Handicappers looking for a viable alternative to the 4-5 morning-line favorite could land on one of two horses stepping up in class first time off the claim, Cherokee Artist and Regal Warrior.

John Robb claimed the 7-year-old Cherokee Artist out of a wire-to-wire, 4 1/4-length win going 1 1/16 miles in a second-level optional $25,000 claimer. He was beaten 5 3/4 lengths by Eighttofasttocatch in last Sepember’s Japan Racing Association, but that one-mile event represented Cherokee Artist’s comeback following a break of nearly two months, and he’s in sharper form now.

New York shipper Regal Warrior is intriguing after changing hands when Richard Dutrow Jr. put in a claim for $30,000 on Feb. 24. Dutrow has gone 3 for 8 with the runners he has brought to Laurel so far in 2012, including a one-two finish by Yawanna Twist and This Ones for Phil in the General George and a near-miss by C C’s Pal in the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie.

Concealed Identity also merits respect making his second start as a 4-year-old. Last season, he won the Federico Tesio and was second in the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth Park.