04/26/2009 11:00PM

Madeo poised to show his strength

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PHOENIX - If you see trainer John Shirreffs these days and he's staring off in the distance with a pensive look about him, well, it's not difficult to understand. After all, numerous questions are rolling around in his head - where to start off the 2009 season with Zenyatta, what to do next with upstart filly Life Is Sweet, how to progress with big-at-times Tiago? At least one question may be answered come Sunday's Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the Hollywood turf: Which direction to go with his talented 4-year-old Madeo?

In some ways Madeo's versatility has been a bit of a curse. Instead of finding his specialty, he has moved around to different distances and split his 12 starts right down the middle on turf and synthetic (six each). Of course, when you win sprinting and routing on synthetic, and win a Grade 2 on turf (Del Mar Derby) and nearly win two others (third in the Arcadia, second in the Oak Tree Derby), you're going to get bounced around.

There has never been a question about Madeo's talent. He looked good from the start. He romped over maidens in his second start in March 2008 (that synthetic sprint) by 6 1/2 lengths. An allowance route win next time sent him into the Alydar here last May 24, and he was a strong second, beaten just a neck. His Grade 2 Swaps run wasn't up to snuff, though, as he ran last of four, but the move to turf brought him back. A rallying win in the Del Mar Derby last Aug. 31 sent him on his way, and then he just missed catching Muny in the Oak Tree Derby. He had a brutal trip when he ran eighth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, and it was time for a break.

But things could not have started out much worse for him when he returned for his 2009 campaign. One of the favorites in the Grade 2 San Fernando at Santa Anita on Jan. 17, he was well back early, took a bad step, and was pulled up by rider Mike Smith. Shirreffs feared the worst, but apparently it was just a misstep, and Smith did right by the horse, protecting him from further injury. Smith may well have saved his career.

They searched for a problem but never found one, so it was back to business. Shirreffs cautiously went forward, and the horse trained well. Things looked even brighter when he powered home to win a mile allowance grass race at Santa Anita on March 12, looking as good as, or better than, ever. Shirreffs was beaming, and it gave him the confidence to send Madeo into the Grade 2 Arcadia there April 4. The fans responded, making him the 8-5 favorite. A big run could punch his ticket to big middle-distance turf races down the road, like the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile and Grade 1 Eddie Read.

Madeo didn't win, but he ran well. He was far back early and finished with good energy for third, beaten a length by Dixie Chatter.

But the Arcadia proved a couple of things. First, that Madeo was in great shape, and that his San Fernando debacle was now just a troublesome memory. Second, that his niche may well be on the grass, from a mile to 1 1/8 miles. Well, he gets 1 1/16 miles worth of Hollywood Park turf Sunday, and another big run can propel him onto a bigger stage down the road.