02/12/2009 12:00AM

Leah's Secret may offer value on rise

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NEW YORK - Santa Anita takes the lead on the first day of the Presidents Day holiday weekend Saturday, with the richest and highest-graded race in the nation, the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Maria Handicap. Among other notable races on Saturday's stakes schedule are a couple of Grade 2, $150,000 sprints, the Richter Scale at Gulfstream Park and the Barbara Fritchie for fillies and mares at Laurel. And of course, hardly a weekend goes by now without stops for aspiring 3-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday, those stops are the $225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, and the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate.

The Davis and the El Camino Real might not be the most important mileposts on the way to Kentucky, but their Grade 3 status gives them some significance - the graded stakes earnings clause that caps the Kentucky Derby field at 20 is an annual consideration now due to the Derby's popularity. Without question, however, the big race this weekend for 3-year-olds will be Monday's Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes, which will mark the seasonal debut of Kentucky Derby future-book favorite Old Fashioned.

Santa Maria Handicap

You don't have to be Stephen Hawking to project Mistical Plan going for the early lead here and Briecat going right after her. Mistical Plan, who will be making her first start around two turns on a main track in 21 months, is a Grade 1 stakes-winning sprinter with sprint speed, so closing doesn't seem like an option. Briecat, meanwhile, notched by far the biggest win of her life and ran by far the best race of her career in her last start, a wire-to-wire win in the Bayakoa Handicap. But beyond the potential of Mistical Plan and Briecat compromising each other's chances here, there are other reasons to look beyond them for a closer. Briecat's win came on a surface some maintain was favoring her speed style, and it came two months ago. And everything Mistical Plan has shown to date says she is much less effective on the kind of synthetic track she'll run on Saturday.

Closers with the potential to win this include Visit, who ran well in two Grade 1 turf events last fall; Model, second to Briecat in the Bayakoa while racing against the grain of the track; and Country Star, second in last month's El Encino off a six-month layoff. I'm not sold on any of them, though. Country Star might improve, but her immensely promising late 2-year-old form seems a distant, unfulfilled memory. Model is coming off the same layoff as Briecat, and I don't think she can get away with that at this level. Visit is very classy and has the potential to be a major force in the female turf division this year. But I wouldn't want to take meager odds on her in what will be her first race on anything but grass.

Leah's Secret is the play. Granted, Leah's Secret will certainly be no secret, as she is going for her fourth straight win. But Visit's potential, Country Star's reputation, and Model's solid form should draw enough money to help Leah's Secret's price, especially since Leah's Secret is stepping up in class. Leah's Secret, however, is no stranger to graded stakes competition. She closed her 2008 campaign with two Grade 2 scores on dirt. Most important, Leah's Secret boasts a big recent win at the distance over the track in the Sunshine Millions Distaff. Her performance in that race was so good that it prompted her connections to delay her retirement and suggests that right now, her best game is synthetic-track racing.

Dust Commander Stakes

This is the headliner at Turfway Park and marks the 2009 debut of $1.7 million earner Brass Hat. Brass Hat faced the likes of Curlin and Grade 1 winner Dancing Forever in his most recent starts, but his last race occurred eight months ago. In his younger days, a layoff like this wouldn't have bothered Brass Hat. But he's 8 now, and there is also doubt as to whether he really likes synthetic tracks. Brass Hat ran poorly in his last attempt on synthetic, even though his performances right before and right after that race say he was in top form at the time.

There isn't much early speed in this race, and Timeless Fashion is the pick to take full advantage of that. Timeless Fashion won in front-running fashion last time out and showed two starts back in the Prairie Bayou Stakes that he certainly belongs at this level. In the Prairie Bayou, Timeless Fashion proved much the best in defeat, narrowly missing despite engaging in a cutthroat speed duel through strong early fractions.

Hallandale Beach Stakes

The last time this group got together, Jack Spratt got up in an upset. That won't happen again Saturday. In an example of the powerful lure of the Triple Crown trail, Jack Spratt is now considered by his connections to be a Kentucky Derby prospect rather than a turf specialist. So Jack Spratt, who finished in front of five in here when he won the Dania Beach on grass most recently, was entered main track only. The funny thing is, there is very little chance of rain in south Florida on Saturday.

It's too bad Jack Spratt won't be running, because I liked Duke of Homberg against him last time, and even though it didn't work out that day, I would like Duke of Homberg against him again. Although Duke of Homberg ran respectably on deep turf courses at Belmont Park last fall in his first two U.S. starts, I thought he might show improvement on firmer turf in the Dania Beach. I think Duke of Homberg wanted to improve, but he never got the chance to show it. He was in perfect striking position turning for home, only to be bottled up in traffic for the final three-sixteenths of a mile, enjoying none of the free run many of his rivals had.