04/18/2007 11:00PM

Plan for Etude is Tesio then Preakness

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If all goes according to plan, Saturday's $125,000 Federico Tesio at Pimlico will serve as Etude's stepping-stone to the Preakness. In order to accomplish that goal, Etude must prove he can handle two turns and defeat Xchanger, a graded stakes winner who returns north after facing some of the best 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/8-mile Tesio, a replay of which will be televised on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. Eastern, tops a five-stakes program on Pimlico's Spring Festival of Racing.

There are also two restricted stakes worth $125,000 apiece, plus the $95,000 Jim McKay Sprint and the $55,000 Old Hilltop. A sixth added-money race, the $125,000 Country Life Farm Stakes, drew only four entries and will not be run.

Etude, a son of 2001 Pimlico Special winner Include, is the track's 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Tesio. Since trainer Richard Small added blinkers to his equipment, Etude has easily won three straight races while improving his Beyer Speed Figures each time, topped by a 97 for his 5 3/4-length victory in last month's Private Terms at Laurel Park.

Small said he considers the Tesio to be "sort of a logical progression, a little longer, a little more difficult, so the horse should be ready for it."

Five other 3-year-olds, including the unbeaten New York-bred Belly Rub, will challenge Etude. The biggest threat appears to be Xchanger, winner of the Grade 3 Sapling at Monmouth Park last summer.

Although Xchanger has yet to win beyond six furlongs, trainer Mark Shuman said he feels the colt's chances were compromised when he was fifth in the $250,000 Southwest and seventh after setting the pace in the Gradeo3 Rebel, both at Oaklawn.

"He trains like a horse who wants to go long," Shuman said. "In the Southwest, we're checking when everybody else is running."

Shuman added that he was unhappy when jockey John Jacinto gave up the rail and took Xchanger wide in the Rebel, won by leading Kentucky Derby contender Curlin.

Shuman chose to run Xchanger in the Tesio, rather than ship to Keeneland for Saturday's Lexington, when Ramon Dominguez agreed to accept the mount.

The Maryland-based Belly Rub is 3 for 3, all against statebreds at Aqueduct. He will be stretching out beyond seven furlongs for the first time.

Saratoga Lulaby, who has displayed dangerous speed in one-turn miles at Laurel, will take another crack at Etude after finishing a good second behind that colt in the Private Terms.