02/11/2005 12:00AM

Mustanfar looks set for breakthrough

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Mustanfar, fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf last year, had a three-month break.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - During the opening half of his 2004 campaign, Mustanfar was never more than one big race away from joining the upper echelon of the 3-year-old division. During the second half of the season, he came even closer to adding his name to the list of the country's top turf horses.

Now 4, Mustanfar served notice he may finally be ready to break through and become one of the leaders of the nation's turf division after returning from a three-month vacation to register an eye-catching victory over a solid field of high-priced optional claiming and allowance horses here Thursday.

Mustanfar was shuffled back to the rear of the pack entering the far turn of Thursday's 1 1/8-mile feature, then angled extremely wide into the stretch while commencing his bid. At that point, overtaking the rail-skimming He's Crafty seemed a formidable task, but once straightened away for the drive, Mustafar unleashed an impressive turn of foot under jockey Jose Santos that propelled him to the easy win.

"That was very impressive," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Mustanfar for his breeders, the Shadwell Stable. "If he didn't win this race we wouldn't have been that upset, because we were just looking to get him started and have a prep for the Grade 1 on March 6. But needless to say, I'm very pleased he was able to run that well and win the race."

The Grade 1 McLaughlin was referring to is the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap which will be decided at 1 3/8 miles on the turf. Mustanfar has competed in two Grade 1 races, finishing a well-beaten fourth in the Blue Grass last spring and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf to close out his 3-year-old season.

"We wanted to take a shot in the Breeders' Cup because he'd run so impressively winning his previous race going a mile and one-half at Keeneland," said McLaughlin in reference to Mustanfar's easy victory in the Grade 3 Sycamore BC Handicap. "I think he's a very good horse, and hopefully we'll get another shot at the Breeders' Cup again in 2005."

McLaughlin's bid to win the main event two consecutive days was narrowly foiled Friday when his South African-bred import Secret Heart was outfinished by the Argentinian-bred Potra Fabulous in the $46,000 allowance race on the turf.

Potra Fabulous, a Group 1 winner in Argentina in 2003, had not started since finishing far back in the Grade 2 New York Handicap on July 5. A 6-year-old mare, she is trained by Bobby Frankel and was ridden to victory by Javier Castellano.

The race changed when the 3-5 Sand Springs dwelt at the start. She recovered to join the leaders while racing wide down the backstretch but tired badly from those efforts through the stretch and finished off the board. Sand Springs, a Grade 2 winner, was making her first start since being purchased privately by owner Ben Sangster and turned over to trainer Bill Mott late last season.

Day taking time off

Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who rode only sparingly during the opening month of the current session, will take the rest of February off and is not likely to return to the saddle on a full-time basis until the first week of March according to his agent Doc Danner.

Day, 51, has accepted only 15 mounts and ridden just two winners during the meet.

"Pat decided he wanted to spend some time with his wife and his daughter Irene," Danner explained. "She's a senior in high school in Louisville and Pat figures this will be his last chance to spend some quality time with her before she heads off to college. Irene's birthday is on March 3, so Pat will likely stay in Kentucky until then and return the following week. He'll ride the remainder of March here before returning to Kentucky for the opening of Keeneland."

Danner said he wasn't concerned about losing an opportunity to pick up a potential Kentucky Derby mount this early in the season.

"Believe me, there's a long way to go before the Derby and there will be plenty of opportunities available once Pat gets back," said Danner. "Pat is still one of the top 10 riders in the world and I'm sure he'll be in demand when trainers are searching for a jockey in the weeks before the Derby."

Third-choice race for Stormy Roman

Trainer Tim Hills passed the opportunity to compete in Saturday's Grade 3 Appleton Handicap with Stormy Roman in lieu of a money allowance race in the book for Sunday. With only two horses in the entry box, though, that race did not fill, so Hills will have to go to Plan C which is next weekend's Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup Handicap.

"I thought the Appleton was coming up too tough, and while a mile is well within his range it's not his favorite distance," Hills explained. "He could have run big in the Appleton and still finished fifth and gotten beat two lengths in that field."

Stormy Roman did exactly that in his previous start here earlier in the meeting, running one of the best races of his career and finishing third behind Union Place in the Ft. Lauderdale Handicap.

"From a figure standpoint, that was definitely one of his best performances," said Hills. "What I liked most about the race was that he dropped back and made a run between horses to get the lead before being outfinished at the end."

Sprint, route are co-features

A pair of second-level allowance races for fillies and mares will share top billing on Sunday's card. The ninth race drew a field of seven going six furlongs, with trainer Todd Pletcher's stakes-placed Forestier the likely favorite and Edge Sweep perhaps her chief competition.

The 10th race, to be decided at 1 1/8 miles on the grass, lured 11 and figures to be a wide-open betting event, with Baxter Hall the logical choice coming off a pair of second-place finishes on the turf.

* Apprentice jockey Rajiv Maragh rode three winners on Friday's program, including the 70-1 Snazzy Leon in the fourth race. Maragh also guided Pokey Pine and Big Out to victories in the third and seventh races, and finished second with longshot Tententwotwenty in the ninth.