06/09/2006 12:00AM

Oaks flops return - one gets a win


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A couple of Kentucky Oaks also-rans made their returns to action Thursday at Churchill Downs, with a disparity in results.

Ex Caelis, who was eased in the May 5 Oaks, came back in winning style by capturing a 1 1/16-mile allowance from just off the pace. But later on the card, Miss Norman struggled in her first race for new connections, finishing fourth, beaten 13 lengths, in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance.

Ex Caelis, ridden by Mark Guidry, failed to switch leads down the stretch when she gradually pulled away from Maxine's Hymn but nonetheless showed substantial improvement over her Oaks effort. Ex Caelis threw a fit in the starting gate before the start of the Oaks and proceeded to run miserably that day.

A Fusaichi Pegasus filly, Ex Caelis finished in 1:43.97 Thursday to earn a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 82. Her winning margin was 1 1/2 lengths.

"I thought Mark did a good job by just doing what was necessary to get the win," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Friday. "I thought after all that happened in the Oaks, she was really perfect in every way. I don't know if we'll run her back in her conditions" - Ex Caelis is eligible for a second-level allowance - "or try something a little more ambitious, but she does have some talent. I think we'll end up getting something done with her."

The triumph by Ex Caelis marked the second straight day that Lukas ran a winner. The Hall of Fame trainer had gone winless through the first 27 days of the Churchill spring meet before Defy the Odds broke the drought Wednesday by winning a $15,000 claiming sprint.

"I think we might be ready to go on a little roll here," said Lukas.

Later Thursday, Leah's Secret was an easy winner over eight other 3-year-old fillies, including Miss Norman. Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Leah's Secret earned a Beyer Figure of 87 with her second win in three starts since returning from a one-year layoff.

"She's really come into her own," said Helen Pitts, who trains Leah's Secret. "She's a huge filly, and she just took some time to develop."

Pitts said Leah's Secret would run once more at the Churchill meet, and "if she does well there, we'll take a look at the Test," a Grade 1 race on Aug. 5 at Saratoga.

Meanwhile, Miss Norman had a decent trip from just off the pace but came up empty. Twelfth in the Oaks in her previous race, Miss Norman was making her first start since having been privately purchased by Lewis Lakin and Clifford Grum.

"She didn't run as well as we'd hoped, but she came back good, and we'll just have to give her a try again in three or four weeks," said trainer Bob Holthus.

Lemons Forever bound for Belmont

Lemons Forever had her second breeze since she upset the Oaks at 47-1 when she went a half-mile Friday morning in 47.60 seconds at Churchill.

Trainer Dallas Stewart said he is taking his time with Lemons Forever, and although he initially intended to run her next in the Mother Goose on July 1, he might wait until the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 22. Both Grade 1 races are at Belmont Park.

"She's taken some time to really get back to herself after the Oaks," said Stewart. "It was a tough race, and I'm sure not going to rush her for no good reason. Whatever works, the Mother Goose or the next one, that's where we'll be."

Very Vegas going for big money

Trainer Nick Canani did not bother to nominate Very Vegas to the Excitable Lady, a $70,000 turf sprint handicap that served as the feature race here Saturday. Canani has bigger fish to fry.

"We're looking at the $250,000 race at Calder on Aug. 5," said Canani, referring to the Distaff Turf Sprint Championship.

Very Vegas has been exceptionally sharp in recent months. Two races after winning the Queen Stakes at Turfway Park, she was beaten a nose in the Mamzelle on May 4, then wheeled back for an easy win in a May 21 allowance at five furlongs on the Churchill turf.

"I'll either prep her here or at Arlington before we go to Calder," said Canani. "The timing of the Excitable Lady wasn't right. This mare has been running real hard, and I couldn't dance every dance."

Romans milestone imminent

A statistical discrepancy arose as trainer Dale Romans marched toward his 1,000th career victory. Going into Friday action, Equibase listed Romans with 997 wins, but that does not count a victory by Roses in May in the 2005 Dubai World Cup. It is Equibase policy to count only North American wins.

Conversely, Churchill is counting the Dubai race and had Romans with 998 going into Friday.

"We are going to acknowledge 1,000 when Dale wins two more," said Churchill spokesman John Asher.

Romans had numerous contenders on both the Friday and Saturday cards at Churchill and figured to hit the milestone on one of those days.

Saving the best for Foster Day

Look ahead to next weekend, and it's not difficult to figure out why the Sunday card at Churchill does not include so much as a single allowance race. With six stakes, led by the Foster, scheduled for Saturday, the track evidently will be pulling out all stops for a Foster blockbuster.

Nonetheless, 10 races will be run here Sunday, with the nominal highlight being a turf route for $50,000 claimers. Prince Prado and Third Half, who recently finished second and third, respectively, at this identical level - albeit in different races - look like the logical favorites. A field of 10, including two with a "main track only" designation, was entered.

Education benefit on tap

Tickets are still available to the Thoroughbred Fraternity Party, a fund-raising dinner and auction that will benefit the Klein Family Learning Center and the Race for Education.

The event is set for Saturday after the Foster program in the Kentucky Derby Museum, with Chris Lincoln and Randy Moss serving as emcees. More information is available by calling 866-829-7600 toll-free.