06/16/2008 12:00AM

Options to Affirmed chalk


LEXINGTON, Ky. - If Two Step Salsa routes as well as he sprints, he will be the horse to beat in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap on Sunday at Hollywood Park. He owns a perfect 3-for-3 record on synthetic surfaces. His Beyer Speed Figures have risen steadily, with a 78 in his debut followed by an 84, 93, and a 99. And he figures to capitalize on his favorable rail post position while using his sprint speed to get loose on the lead.

But what if Two Step Salsa doesn't route as well as he sprints?

He might be hammered down to low odds, and if that turns out to be the case, value-oriented handicappers must consider the possibility that he will regress while trying a route for the first time. Bettors with an open mind will have a number of potential ways to go. The following horses are Two Step Salsa's opponents, listed in my order of preference.

I like the chances of Tres Borrachos best. He never threatened when he finished ninth in the Preakness, but lost all chance when he stumbled so badly that he went to his nose at the start. Rate him on his third-place finish behind Gayego and Z Fortune in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, and he is a very appealing possibility. He has enough tactical speed to stay within easy striking distance of Two Step Salsa, and can slip past if that rival shows any weakness down the stretch.

Ez Dreamer just finished a contending third on the turf in the Grade 3 Will Rogers. That was a good race. But he might be a little better on other surfaces. A check of his last three turf Beyer Figures shows that they average out to 84, while the average of his last three dirt numbers is 90. I can't promise that he will be better on a synthetic surface than he was on grass, but the possibility of improvement makes him an interesting horse to include in the exotics.

Dixie Chatter won the Grade 1 Norfolk at this distance at Oak Tree in September. Most recently, in his return from a 7 1/2-month vacation, he was used hard early when he stayed close to a fast pace, bid for the lead, then faded and finished third behind Two Step Salsa. That isn't his usual running style. Dixie Chatter has done his best running as a closer, and if he can return to those tactics Sunday he will maximize his chances of rebounding.

Exuma improved significantly on the move from Santa Anita to Hollywood. He graduated in a race open to older maiden specials in his first local start, then finished a contending third behind Trevor's Clever on the jump to stakes company. He has a right to continue on the upswing Sunday in his fifth start.

Trevor's Clever had only a $40,000 maiden claiming win to his credit when he capitalized on a strong pace and rallied from last to win the Alydar as a 17-1 longshot. If Two Step Salsa doesn't relax early, Trevor's Clever will find a solid pace to chase Sunday as well, so another good effort is possible.

Bingham finished fourth, just two lengths behind Trevor's Clever, in the Alydar. He can improve with the addition of blinkers, and should offer an attractive overlaid price in the exotics.

Wind's Legacy proved that he likes this distance when he won an allowance race at Hollywood in December. He was no match for Two Step Salsa when he returned from a 5 1/2-month vacation, but he might be set to give a better account of himself in the rematch. Wind's Legacy has breezed in 59 seconds since that race, and can make his presence felt if he takes a step forward with the benefit of that effort under his belt.