12/19/2007 1:00AM

Mystery Classic out to make amends in Bonapaw

EmailThe trainer Bob Schultz prefers not to weave a complex web of excuses for Mystery Classic's fifth-place finish in the 2006 Bonapaw Stakes at Fair Grounds.

"We came over and got our butts kicked," Schultz said.

And that never happens to Mystery Classic. Among the best Texas-breds going, Mystery Classic has won a remarkable 12 of 17 career starts, and has finished worse than third in only one race besides the Bonapaw. On Saturday, he will try to avenge his loss last year in the $100,000 race, one of four sprint stakes on the Fair Grounds card.

Schultz, based at Sam Houston, feels like Mystery Classic can do better this time. First, the 2006 race was rained off grass; Mystery Classic is equally adept on turf and dirt, but a 5o1/2-furlong turf race has a shorter stretch run than the same distance on dirt, which could work to Mystery Classic's advantage. Moreover, Mystery Classic wound up on a duel for the early lead last year, and Schultz hopes that this time more energy can be saved for the late stages.

Mystery Classic had surgery to remove bone spurs from his knee after last year's Bonapaw, and may be a better horse for it this season, during which he has won five consecutive races after a comeback loss in June. Mystery Classic can get worked up in the paddock before a race, but mostly is a cool, calm, and collected horse who obviously has a nose for the wire.

"When you get through running him in a race, you could throw a kid on him and ride him back to the barn," Schultz said. "He's a very intelligent horse."

The Bonapaw drew 13 entries, and also includes Stormin Baghdad, who won the opening-day Thanksgiving Handicap. The Bonapaw is the last in a four-stakes series that begins in race 6 with the Sugar Bowl for 2-year-olds, moves into the Letellier Memorial for 2-year-old fillies, and continues with the Esplanade for older fillies.

Good news for Brilliant, bad news for 'Mambo'

The multiple graded turf stakes winner Brilliant has two workouts since shipping to Fair Grounds from Keeneland, going an easy half-mile on Monday. Brilliant's connections hope he'll be able to start in a prep race later in the meet, and then make a start in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz.

"I feel he's going to get to the races down here, and that's the plan," trainer Neil Howard said. "He's had a couple of easy works, went fine, just kind of what we were looking for."

Brilliant has been brilliant at times, but has mixed in equal measures of disappointment. He came within a nose of winning the Grade 1 Turf Classic last spring at Churchill Downs, but ended his 2007 campaign with a sixth-place finish Aug. 5 in the Fourstardave at Saratoga.

Meanwhile, the 2-year-old Mambo in Seattle, a Churchill maiden winner in his last start, is out of training after having surgery to remove a chip from his knee. The problem was discovered after Mambo in Seattle worked at Fair Grounds, but Howard said the injury was "nothing drastic."

Said Howard, "He'll only be out about five to six weeks. It's obviously too late to be ready for anything serious in the spring, but I think we're still going to have a nice 3-year-old later in the year."

Such was the course followed this year by Grasshopper, who is nearing his first breeze of the winter. Grasshopper has had a couple of two-minute licks, Howard said, and is doing well. His main goal this meet is the New Orleans Handicap.

Main-track maintenance isn't easy

Javier Barajas is the kind of trackman to address challenges head on, and he hasn't been trying to fool himself. The Fair Grounds main track has changed significantly since the beginning of the meet.

The track grew deep and tiring last weekend, especially during morning training, when horses struggled to break 1:01 for five-furlong works. Several six-furlong races at lower class levels went in 1:14 and change.

"The track wasn't moving on me much in the beginning, but then, with 2,000 horses on it, it's getting loose on me," Barajas said.

Barajas, the well-respected Arlington trackman, said limited time between the end of training and Fair Grounds's fairly early 12:35op.m. first post time left him with minimal opportunity to work the track. Barajas has been grading the surface on Mondays, but said he plans to move the grading day to Wednesday.

"Monday, I'd grade the track and tighten it up, and get it all pretty, but by the weekend, it would loosen up," Barajas said. "I'm trying to stay on top of it."