08/29/2004 11:00PM

No Sapling excuses from Ryerson

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Trainer Jim Ryerson had no regrets following Park Avenue Ball's second-place finish in the Grade 3, $100,000 Sapling Stakes on Saturday at Monmouth Park.

"Everything went good," said Ryerson. "Everything went the way we wanted except for the outcome."

The race set up perfectly for Park Avenue Ball. The winner of the Tyro Stakes, Park Avenue Ball got a ground-saving ride from Dale Beckner and looked like a winner when he moved past the pacesetting Upscaled a furlong from the finish.

Park Avenue Ball's winning streak looked about to hit three until longshot Evil Minister came roaring through the lane to snatch away the victory by three-quarters of a length.

"That winner looked really good," said Ryerson. "He was really extending with a nice, strong stride. He didn't look like 24-1."

The loss made Ryerson a Sapling bridesmaid once again. Ryerson, who grew up in nearby Long Branch, has long desired a win in Monmouth's top event for 2-year-olds. His best previous finish was a second with Meadow Flight in 1993.

As for Park Avenue Ball's next start, Ryerson said he didn't know.

Pop the Question okay after being eased

Trainer John Dowd was relieved to find nothing wrong with Pop the Question after the colt was eased in the Sapling.

Pop the Question, a 14-1 shot, was steadied before dropping out of the race on the backstretch. He walked off the track.

"We're not sure what happened," said Dowd the morning after. The trainer said that Pop the Question's jockey, Victor Molina, "said he took two or three funny steps. He might have clipped heels. The vets checked him out and he jogged down the road fine. That's the good news. He seems to be 100 percent."

El Progreso in good form

El Progreso's last outing on Aug. 13 was one of his best. El Progreso ran second to Greg's Syrah after being boxed on the turn in a five-furlong grass dash. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 79 for the effort, the first time he has hit the board in the eight grass races.

El Progreso is one of the contenders in the Wednesday feature, a $41,000 five-furlong turf allowance.

A New Jersey-bred ridgling, El Progreso has had a productive career, with five wins and $153,187 in earnings. "He's like one of the family," said El Progreso's trainer, Russell Cash. "He's been around for a long time."

After spending most of his career in main-track sprints, El Progreso has run on turf in three of his four races this year.

"He seems to be handling the turf really well," said Cash. "Hopefully, he'll run back to that last race."

Apprentice rider Michael Baez has the return call.

El Progreso faces nine rivals, most of whom lack turf experience. Four runners will make their grass debut, and three others have run just once on the grass.

Of the horses with grass experience, Special Judge looks toughest. Three of his four starts at the meet have come in turf sprints. He has a second- and a third-place finish on the grass.

Rock Island Salami has never run on the grass and will be very tough if the race moves off the turf to a wet track. The 3-year-old Rock Island Salami, who started his career with trainer Bob Baffert in California, has won both of his races on off tracks since coming east to Philadelphia Park-based trainer Donald Reeder.

He wired an allowance field at Monmouth last time out over a "good" strip to register a career-best Beyer Figure of 91.

Stewart Elliott again has the mount.

Bracho back in action with longshot winner

Jockey Richard Bracho, sidelined with a back injury caused in a three-horse pileup at Monmouth on June 5, returned to action on Friday.

"He's back and feeling 100 percent," said Bracho's agent, Dixie Shea. "We're looking to rebuild our business."

Bracho got his first win on the comeback trail with 47-1 shot Stinky Twinkie in the 11th race Sunday.

Bracho finished tied for eighth in the Monmouth standings last year.