10/30/2007 11:00PM

Pierce-trained runners shouldn't be overlooked

EmailSTICKNEY, Ill. - It's not unfair to call Clayton Pierce a small-time trainer. So far this year, a grand total of four different horses have started in his name. And therefore, it's fair to say that Friday is a big day for Team Pierce at Hawthorne Race Course.

In race 1, El Pollo Volando goes in a second-level Illinois-bred route allowance. The race marks his seventh start of the year, and El Pollo Volando is seeking his second win of 2007. Skip to race 9, and there's Ripe Tomato, who has gone 2 for 11 during a productive 2007 campaign. Considering the Pierce stable as a whole has sent out 24 starters for 4 wins this year, Friday marks a watershed moment.

The roster may be small, but Pierce-trained horses, often overlooked by bettors unfamiliar with the name, regularly pay at overlaid odds: El Pollo Volando shows wins at odds of 9-2 and 9-1, while Ripe Tomato's pair of 2007 scores came at 14-1 and, on Oct. 13, at 6-1.

Both horses have a shot Friday. El Pollo Volando is in a race with just six horses, and though he was a distant fifth of 10 on Oct. 17 in his first start after a break, he fits much better at Friday's route trip than he did going 6 1/2 furlongs last time.

Ripe Tomato just won a race under conditions quite similar to Friday's featured ninth race, a third-level allowance at six furlongs. Last out, Ripe Tomato ran for a $35,000 claiming tag in an optional claimer also open to third-level allowance horses and turned in a strong late rally to win going away. That start came at 6 1/2 furlongs, however, and Ripe Tomato will need a contested early pace to rally in time to win again at this shorter distance.

Make no mistake, there is plenty of early speed in Friday's ninth, but the competition looks tougher than what Ripe Tomato faced last time. Start off with Clever Strike, who appears to have real talent, but hasn't raced since May 14. Trained by Don Von Hemel, Clever Strike finished second in her career debut last March at Oaklawn, but then reeled off three straight victories before going to the sidelines. She has regularly spaced, fast workouts for her comeback and could prove formidable.

Byenne, another layoff horse, ran well enough over the summer to win this race, but has started only on turf and Polytrack.