06/27/2002 11:00PM

Point Prince might be a good sleeper pick

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PHOENIX - The 3-year-old turf horses in the West had so far been content to fight for the scraps that fall from Mountain Rage's table.

But Mountain Rage is now out of action, and Sunday's Grade 3 Cinema Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the turf at Hollywood Park will let those with aspirations for races such as the Secretariat, Del Mar Derby, and Hollywood Derby start staking their claims.

The Thoroughbred Corporation entry, Regiment and Johar, the two highweights, figures to be a prohibitive favorite, and with good reason. Regiment has blossomed on the grass for trainer Bob Baffert, winning all three tries, including the Diamond A USA Stakes at Lone Star on May 27.

Johar's rally in the Grade 3 Will Rogers at Hollywood on June 1 fell a neck short. But Johar, who previously chased Mountain Rage in the La Puente, has hinted at major ability.

Inesperado is a new face from France, set to make his U.S. debut for Bobby Frankel. He has won 4 of 9, including a listed stakes. You must fear any Frankel runner, and remember that French form has held up exceedingly well on the West Coast in recent years.

But there's another potential spoiler, one who figures to attract little attention.

The guys who call the shots for Team Valor are no dummies. They don't waste starts and they don't misplace their horses. So don't be too sure that their Point Prince is up against it.

Point Prince, by Youmadeyourpoint, made an immediate impact. He graduated Dec. 20 in a maiden claiming sprint at Calder by 10 lengths. He was claimed that day by his current connections. Wheeled back for a $35k tag, Point Prince won easily again, this time at Gulfstream on Jan. 20. It was time to push the envelope.

Sent 1 1/16 miles in an April 27 allowance at Churchill Downs, Point Prince ran well, but faltered to third, beaten more than four lengths. Still, it was his first route race, and it came in the slop. It was a creditable performance.

Time now for another experiment. They sent Point Prince a mile on the turf in another allowance May 30, and he passed with flying colors.

Team Valor could have left him there, maybe for the Jefferson Cup, or tried Midwest turf races like the Hawthorne Derby or the Arlington Classic. Instead, they shipped him west, to Jenine Sahadi's barn, and a crack at some big money. It doesn't hurt that Point Prince gets in as the race lightweight at 113 pounds.

Point Prince comes into this with plenty of upside, and with the Regiment/Johar entry at 4-5 or so, and Inesperado taking considerable money, he could sneak in the backdoor at an awfully nice number.

A strange choice for Congaree

Was it just me, or did your eyebrows also go up when you heard trainer Bob Baffert was pointing Congaree next for the Firecracker at Churchill Downs at a mile on the turf July 4? Oh, it's no reach to see Congaree on turf - he's by Arazi, so there's every reason to think he can handle it. And maybe Baffert is trying to see if the Breeders' Cup Mile could be in his future.

But wasn't it just a couple weeks ago, after a sterling return win in the Lone Star Mile, that everyone was raving about Congaree as a dirt star? Sure he was beaten in the Stephen Foster. It wasn't going to matter since Street Cry ran so well, but Congaree did run like a short horse in that race. Baffert said he was too easy on the horse after the Lone Star race and took the blame for the defeat.

So why the Firecracker instead of the Hollywood Gold Cup just 10 days later? That's a top-class race, one for which a healthy, happy Congaree would be a perfect fit. Don't tell me he can't go 1 1/4 miles - he did that just fine in the Derby last year. It was the pace, not the distance that was his undoing there.

Baffert has said that he always has to rush Congaree into something. But doesn't it seem to be a rush to get to the Firecracker, instead of taking the extra week for the prestigious Hollywood Gold Cup?

If Baffert thought Congaree was short for the Foster, maybe he thinks he needs more work. What if he goes in the Firecracker and then the Hollywood Gold Cup? Think of the Firecracker as a glorified workout. Stay tuned.