12/18/2008 12:00AM

Merkel, It Happened Again look intriguing

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Accomplishment or potential? Handicappers puzzling through the $60,000 Sugar Bowl, one of five stakes on the Saturday card at Fair Grounds, face at least a little bit of a choice between the two. Seven of the Sugar Bowl horses are two-time winners while five have just one victory, but two of the horses eligible for an entry-level allowance, It Happened Again and Merkel, look as talented as any of the 2-year-olds in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl.

Merkel comes out of the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, who won last season's Sugar Bowl with the talented Sok Sok. Merkel has done less now than Sok Sok had at this point last year, with only two races - and none since May - on his resume. But it was hard not to be impressed by Merkel's career debut last April 4 at Keeneland. He won that race by more than three lengths, and was dueled into submission in his only other start, a fourth-place finish behind Run Away and Hide in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill.

But if Merkel has not yet learned to ration his speed, he could easily wind up on a taxing pace once again, with three fast horses drawn to his outside. Meanwhile, It Happened Again should be racing several lengths off the leaders, though he zipped through a half-mile in 44 seconds and change while winning a maiden race by more than three lengths Oct. 14 at Philadelphia Park. By Proud Citizen, It Happened Again is held in high regard by trainer Larry Jones, who thinks the colt has route potential.

"This race here, you figure its going to be loaded with pace," Jones said. "This is a chance to teach him a little bit more, and I've got a feeling he's going to find himself farther back this time."

Bonapaw: Chamberlain Bridge looks good

Euroears is awaiting a dirt stakes next month, and Mr. Nightlinger is getting a break after a flame-out in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, but don't cry for trainer Bret Calhoun. In Chamberlain Bridge, he still has the likely favorite in the $60,000 Bonapaw, a 5 1/2-furlong turf stakes.

"He's got the rail, he's run well over this turf course, and it looks like he's the speed of the race," Calhoun said last week. "I like our position."

Chamberlain Bridge was claimed for $35,000 late in last Fair Grounds meet, and has panned out nicely, with 3 wins and 3 thirds in his 6 starts since the claim. Chamberlain Bridge hit peak form this fall in Kentucky, winning the $150,000 Woodford Stakes at Keeneland by a clear margin on Oct. 4 before capturing a turf-sprint allowance at Churchill by almost two lengths on Oct. 30.

But there is at least one worthy opponent, and that is the vexing Storm Treasure. A starter in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, Storm Treasure had only 2 wins in his first 19 starts, but is talented enough to have finished third last month in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Now 5 for 29, he comes into the Bonapaw off a closing third-place finish in the Kennedy Road over Woodbine's Polytrack, and is the main threat to run down Chamberlain Bridge in deep stretch.

Esplanade: Secret Gypsy legitimate favorite

Secret Gypsy made a splash at the 2007 Saratoga meet when she set a 5 1/2-furlong track record in her career debut. During the rest of 2007, however, there were no more track records, no more wins - not even another start for Secret Gypsy. But the 3-year-old Secret Gypsy has come back around in recent months. She won an allowance race at Saratoga this past summer, finished second to the talented Informed Decision in the Raven Run at Keeneland, and most recently won a Churchill Downs allowance race by more than eight lengths, form should make Secret Gypsy a heavy favorite to win the $60,000 Esplanade on Saturday.

"She's getting where she's relaxing better," said trainer Ronny Werner. "She's getting better and better mentally with age, smarter about things. I'm really pleased with the way she's going."

Werner said he considered a trip to California for the Grade 1 La Brea, but transportation was not going to be easy, and in the end, Werner decided discretion was the better part of valor. The 5 1/2-furlong Esplanade is right in Secret Gypsy's wheelhouse, and the 11 horses entered against her will be hard-pressed to spring an upset.

Letellier: Leigh McLovin in sharp form

Werner also has one of the favorites for the $60,000 Letellier, a six-furlong sprint for 2-year-old fillies. Leigh McLovin ran fast but finished second in her career debut last May at Churchill Downs, but was second to none in her second career start Nov. 16 at Fair Grounds, pulling away when challenged late, and winning a maiden race by almost two lengths.

Leigh McLovin must overcome the rail draw in the Letellier, but has only five opponents in the race. Her chief rival might be She's Extreme, a Churchill Downs entry-level allowance winner in her most recent start.