07/30/2009 11:00PM

Little separates three contenders

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AUBURN, Wash. - The road to the Emerald Downs Derby is one less traveled. Only seven horses signed on for Sunday's 1 1/16-mile, $50,000 Seattle Slew Handicap, the final stepping-stone to the track's 3-year-old championship on Sept. 7, and only four of the projected starters would seem to be viable contenders at the derby distance of nine furlongs.

Winning Machine, Rooster City, and Peaceful Reign, who finished heads apart in the one-mile Tacoma Handicap in late June, are the leading contenders, with Noosa Beach, a two-time stakes winner at the meeting who finished fourth in the Tacoma Handicap, certain to attract wagering support. The other starters in Sunday's race, Deacon Speakin', Who's Your Next Ex, and Born'n Blue Genes, have yet to make an impact in stakes company and figure to be longshots.

Winning Machine surged past Peaceful Reign in the final strides to win the Tacoma following a race-long speed duel with that rival. Rooster City closed stoutly to get the place, a head behind Winning Machine and a head in front of Peaceful Reign. All three stand to move forward Sunday in their second start around two turns this season.

As always, pace could tell the tale. Deacon Speakin' is coming off a gate-to-wire victory in a one-mile, $32,000 optional claimer, and Who's Your Next Ex has won two consecutive claiming races in front-running fashion. If one or both pester Peaceful Reign early, the race could set up nicely for Rooster City, who rallied gamely on a speed-favoring surface in the Tacoma.

Rooster City has yet to win in three starts at the meeting. But he has put forth strong efforts in his two career route attempts. He finished second, three-quarters of a length behind Gallant Son, in the one-mile WTBA Lads last August.

Winning Machine has improved steadily for trainer Doris Harwood, who also conditions Noosa Beach. After missing by a head to Noosa Beach in the Pepsi-Cola, Winning Machine turned the tables on his stablemate in the Tacoma.

Peaceful Reign, claimed out of a maiden race for $30,000 in May, can recoup most of the purchase price with a victory Sunday.