01/12/2008 1:00AM

Palos Verdes next for Midnight Lute


ARCADIA, Calif. - Midnight Lute, the leading candidate for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding sprinter of 2007, will make his 2008 debut in $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita next Saturday, trainer Bob Baffert said.

Midnight Lute has not started since finishing second in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in November, a loss that ended a two-race winning streak comprising the Grade 1 Forego Handicap at Saratoga in August and the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Monmouth Park in October.

Baffert had considered waiting to start Midnight Lute in the $150,000 San Carlos Handicap over seven furlongs on Feb. 16, but has opted for the Grade 2 Palos Verdes over six furlongs.

"He's ready to run right now," Baffert said.

Baffert said another factor in the decision to run Midnight Lute in the Palos Verdes was concern about weather. The forecast for next Saturday is for dry weather, which is important because of drainage problems with the Cushion Track surface. Three days of racing were cancelled (Jan. 5-7) after rain saturated the track.

While track officials are furiously working on ways to improve drainage, there are no guarantees that the surface will handle rain. That would make waiting for the San Carlos a gamble, Baffert said.

"What if rains that weekend?" he said.

Aside from Midnight Lute, the Palos Verdes field is expected to include Barbecue Eddie, Greg's Gold, In Summation, and Soul City Slew.

Copa de Plata also might start, according to trainer Brian Koriner. A 5-year-old horse, Copa de Plata has won 5 of 10 starts and $68,559 in Puerto Rico.

Sweetnorthernsaint gets ready

Sweetnorthernsaint, the winner of the 2006 Illinois Derby, worked six furlongs in 1:12 at Santa Anita on Saturday, the fastest of 11 recorded works at the distance.

The workout left Sweetnorthernsaint on course for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic for California-breds and Florida-breds here on Jan. 26. A winner of 6 of 16 starts and $860,675, Sweetnorthernsaint will be one of the leading Florida-breds in the Classic, which is run over 1 1/8 miles.

Trained by Michael Trombetta, Sweetnorthernsaint will be making his second start after a seven-month layoff. A 5-year-old, Sweetnor-thernsaint finished sixth in the Holiday Cheer Stakes on the Turfway Park Polytrack on Dec. 29, his first start on a synthetic track. The six-furlong distance was too short for Sweetnorthernsaint, according to Trombetta.

"We sprinted him and I think it caught him by surprise," Trombetta said. "He had a hard time keeping up. I didn't think we could train him to a race 1 1/8 miles."

Owned by Ted Theos and Joseph Balsamo, Sweetnorthernsaint was fifth in the 2007 Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park. In 2006, he finished second in the Preakness Stakes and seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

Quick times on Cushion

Santa Anita's Cushion Track produced fast times in the first few races on Saturday. Maiden claimers ran six furlongs in 1:08.35 in the first race, while $50,000 claimers ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13.81 in the second race.

Jockey Victor Espinoza, who worked Sweetnorthernsaint on Saturday, said the track is producing less kickback than before, which he said could aid closers.

"Before it was flying too much," he said. "The horses didn't want to run at the end. They are running better from behind now."

He said that the presence of small rocks on the track remains a concern. On Saturday morning, an eight-person maintenance crew was seen scouring the track with small rakes, looking for rocks.

* A memorial service for exerciser rider Al Schwizer will be held on Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Clocker's Corner at Santa Anita. Schwizer died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Jan. 7. He was 71.