02/01/2008 12:00AM

Mandella finds another gem in Crown of Thorns

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Dixie Chatter won the Norfolk Stakes last fall, but then went to the sidelines and only has recently returned to galloping. Into Mischief won the CashCall Futurity in December, and is awaiting next weekend's San Vicente Stakes.

Into the void for trainer Richard Mandella leaps Crown of Thorns, his latest exciting Kentucky Derby prospect, who will stretch out around two turns for the first time in the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert Lewis Memorial Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

Crown of Thorns romped by seven lengths when he defeated maidens going seven furlongs on Jan. 1. Since then, Mandella has had to improvise with his training. Though based at Santa Anita, Crown of Thorns had to be sent across town to Hollywood Park to get in a crucial recent workout because of problems that plagued Santa Anita's Cushion Track surface much of January.

"I suppose everybody in the last 10 days has had to do something different," Mandella said Thursday morning.

Crown of Thorns, by Repent, is "a big, long-striding colt who looks like he'll enjoy" two turns, Mandella said. After an educational debut, Crown of Thorns improved sharply in his second start.

"We needed to get a race into him the first time," Mandella said. "It did him a lot of good."

Whether it's because of the weather, which has contributed to curtailed training schedules, or other stakes options in upcoming weeks, the Lewis came up light, with just five runners. But the 1 1/16-mile race is compelling, since several horses, like Crown of Thorns, have displayed promise in brief campaigns, and now will get a chance to show if they belong on the Derby radar screen.

Reflect Times, like Crown of Thorns, has raced just twice, but has won both. After a debut win at Del Mar, he came back the first week of this meet and scored a fast win in an allowance race against Gayego, who subsequently won the San Pedro Stakes. Reflect Times, by French Deputy, also will be trying two turns for the first time.

Coast Guard, by Stormy Atlantic, owns just a maiden win, but it was around two turns; none of his rivals has won a race going two turns. In an attempt to get Coast Guard to run straight, trainer David Hofmans said he will put blinkers back on the horse.

"The first time I put them on him, I thought it made him too aggressive," Hofmans said. "I took them off last time, thinking he'd be over his old habits, but he went to drifting out again at the three-sixteenths pole. I've experimented with different blinkers, and they seem to work really well."

Hofmans said Coast Guard will wear a French blinker, which has a moderate cup, and he will put a small hole in both plastic cups.

Even though Coast Guard did not run as straight as Hofmans desired last time, "I thought it was a very good race for his first time around two turns," he said. "He always seemed like a route horse."

Indian Sun clunked up for second in the San Rafael Stakes on Jan. 12. Meal Penalty was fifth in the San Pedro on Jan. 20. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the small Lewis field was a major factor in deciding to wheel Meal Penalty back in two weeks.