02/08/2005 12:00AM

Motivation separates top two

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Mustanfar has won two graded stakes and made his last start in the Breeders' Cup, whereas He's Crafty has finished off the board in his only two previous stakes appearances. From that data, it would seem an easy task to separate the two leading contenders in Thursday's $39,000 optional claiming feature at Gulfstream Park.

But despite his more impressive credentials, Mustanfar may prove vulnerable, while He's Crafty may be the most likely winner of the 1 1/8-mile turf race. The feature drew a field of nine, including Uncivil, who was entered for the main track only.

A son of Unbridled, captured Belmont's Grade 3 Lexington Stakes via the disqualification of Icy Atlantic and also won Keeneland's Grade 3 Sycamore Breeders' Cup before closing out his 3-year-old campaign with a fifth-place finish behind Better Talk Now in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin gave Mustanfar a little breather upon his return from Lone Star Park but has had him in steady training at Palm Meadows since early January.

"I gave him a little R and R after the Breeders' Cup, but he's doing great, and I'm glad this allowance race went because I'm using it as a prep for the Grade 1 later in the meet," said McLaughlin, referring to the $250,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap on March 6. "We're certainly hoping he wins on Thursday, but the most important thing is that we just need to get him started."

is likely not pointing for anything yet beyond Thursday's main event, which makes him the more dangerous of the two key contenders. A 6-year-old son of Crafty Prospector, He's Crafty is coming off one of the best races of his career on Dec. 28, when he set a course record en route to a two-length allowance win at Calder.

Trained by Bill Mott for Live Oak Plantation, He's Crafty figures to get the early jump on the stretch-running Mustanfar while competing at his favorite distance Thursday. He's Crafty has never finished worse than second in five starts at 1 1/8 miles.

finished only two lengths behind He's Crafty's record-setting performance and turned in another good effort 12 days later, when he was beaten 2 1/4 lengths after forcing a rapid early pace in the Ft. Lauderdale Handicap here. A 7-year-old veteran, Marco's Word has won 14 of his 50 career starts, including two over the local turf course.

Gran Cesare, Much Respect, Heir Apparent, Final Prophecy, and Stormy Ray round out the field.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman