12/21/2006 12:00AM

Pivotal race for Big Top Cat


NEW ORLEANS - When a well-bred colt injures himself the owners always have to weigh his value at stud against his potential on the track. It's a tricky equation, especially if there's a chance to get a lightly raced animal some black type to enhance his reputation. Big Top Cat will let his connections know which way he's going Saturday in the $75,000 Bonapaw Stakes at Fair Grounds.

"Our biggest concern is his breeding," said Jeff Thornbury, who trains Big Top Cat, a 4-year-old Overbrook Farm homebred by Storm Cat out of the mare Golden Attraction. His dam won three Grade 1 races at 2 and the Grade 2 Turfway Park Breeders' Cup at 3.

"His potential is as a stallion with his pedigree," Thornbury said. "That's what will happen to him."

Meanwhile, Thornbury's job is to show what Big Top Cat can do on the racetrack.

"I've have had him about six months," he said. "He's a very nice horse. He finished third to Lost in the Fog in the Bay Shore at Aqueduct."

Back then, Big Top Cat was under the care of D. Wayne Lukas. He arrived with a reputation, starting as the favorite in his debut at Saratoga in August 2004. He flashed early speed in that race and finished ninth. Two starts later, in his first race at 3, Big Top Cat won his maiden at Santa Anita. He showed speed and tired in his next three races, including a third-place finish to Lost in the Fog in the 2005 Bay Shore, his best effort. Big Top Cat stopped badly in the Derby Trial in April 2005 and was discovered to have a breathing problem. He underwent throat surgery and didn't race again for almost 18 months.

Big Top Cat began to show his speed again in the mornings at Turfway Park. Thornbury entered him in a first-level allowance at Hoosier Park in October and Big Top Cat slaughtered the field with plenty in reserve while earning a 91 Beyer Speed Figure.

"We ran him in Indiana to see if he could still perform, and he did well," Thornbury said.

Big Top Cat has been aggressive in the morning here in a trio of five-furlong works, finishing with a bullet 1:01.80 in the slop last week.

With heavy rain beginning Thursday and forecast through the weekend, the Bonapaw is likely to be moved from the turf to the main track.

"I wouldn't mind seeing it sloppy, but we'll run either way," said Thornbury. "We waited for a race and we had a hard time finding the right fit. We thought this might be our only shot at this distance. We're trying to find out if he's good enough to continue on."

Talamo continues to hold a hot hand

School is out this week for holiday recess and most 16-year-olds in New Orleans are occupied with the celebrations at hand. Not Joseph Talamo, who is suddenly this city's hottest professional athlete not wearing a Saints uniform.

Talamo is spending his mornings this week working horses in the fog and slop and his afternoons racing them. He is the hot apprentice at the meet and appears to be just warming up. In the last week at Fair Grounds, Talamo posted three consecutive riding triples after starting the week with a riding double. He has 11 wins over a four-day stretch, all for different trainers.

His 29 wins put him far out in front of his rivals in the jockey standings.

Talamo capped off his latest run with a well-timed rally aboard Parker B. in the feature race last Sunday, an optional claimer at six furlongs, beating a good field including the well-regarded Music School and Four Sevens. It was the second win of the meet for Talamo aboard Parker B., who did it with the kind of flourish that suggests the next level is within his scope.