07/25/2006 12:00AM

Premium Saltine in for fight of his life

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Bordonaro has won four straight races to rank as the nation's leading sprinter. Carthage has won five straight races, including a victory over last year's champion sprinter, Lost in the Fog. Both are in top form right now as they prepare for the Grade 1, $300,000 Bing Crosby Handicap on Sunday at Del Mar, but trainer Ted West believes he has a chance to upset them with Premium Saltine, who scored an overpowering victory in his West Coast debut on June 14 at Hollywood Park.

Premium Saltine had not raced since November, and was making his first start since being purchased privately by owner Jeff Sengara and turned over to West, who trains horses with his son, Ted H. West.

"I thought he might need a race," West said at his Del Mar barn on Tuesday morning. "I had some misgivings about how fit he was."

Premium Saltine roared to the front, set fast fractions, and cruised by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:15.51 for 6 1/2 furlongs, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Now, he will seek not only his first Grade 1 win, but his first graded stakes win, period.

There once were far higher hopes for Premium Saltine. Now age 7, he was an expensive yearling purchase for owner B. Wayne Hughes, but never rose to the elite level. After winning four of his first 13 starts, and being gelded, he was put in a $40,000 claiming race at Lone Star Park in October 2004 in his return from an eight-month layoff. Premium Saltine was claimed that day, and won five times for trainers Cody Autrey and Tom Amoss while racing at Lone Star, Fair Grounds, Hawthorne, Prairie Meadows, Turfway Park, Keeneland, and Churchill Downs.

Three months ago, Sengara bought Premium Saltine, a son of Salt Lake, from owner Maggi Moss. West liked what he saw when he arrived.

"He's an outstanding individual," West said of the dark bay, whose color is similar to that of his damsire, Wild Again.

Now, Premium Saltine will compete in the biggest race of his life.

"Bordonaro, in my opinion, is the best sprinter in the country, and Carthage - nobody beats him," West said. "But our horse is coming off a race I thought was incredible."

Premium Saltine will be ridden by Tyler Baze, who was aboard for his victory at Hollywood Park. The rest of the field for the six-furlong Bing Crosby is expected to be Battle Won (Victor Espinoza the rider), Bordonaro (Alex Solis), Carthage (Dennis Carr), and possibly Pure as Gold and Tricky Trevor.

More problems for Headley

Trainer Gus Headley's troubles continued this past weekend. Headley, the son of trainer Bruce Headley and the nephew of Ingrid Fermin, the California Horse Racing Board's executive director, was fined $1,500 earlier this month at Hollywood Park when stewards there ruled that he was operating his own stable, yet running horses under his father's name.

The horse who got Gus Headley in a tight spot was Kalookan Lessie, who ran in Bruce Headley's name when she won a California-bred allowance race on July 4. Gus Headley has since passed a trainer's test, and was scheduled to run Kalookan Lessie under his name on Sunday in the Fleet Treat Stakes, but she had to be scratched after stewards discovered she had received her Lasix shot in less than the required four hours before post time.

"We got word that it was a few minutes late," said George Slender, one of Del Mar's three stewards. "We called Mr. Headley, because we wanted to verify his side of the story. Legally, he has a right to scratch a horse as a stakes scratch in a stakes race."

Slender said that the stewards quickly made calls to a California Horse Racing Board investigator, the track and state veterinarians, the vet who treated Kalookan Lessie, and to associate steward Nancy Ury in hopes of finding out just what happened.

"And during the course of our research, Mr. Headley scratched his horse," said Scott Chaney, another of Del Mar's stewards.

Rare dissent for a steward

Chaney, Slender, and Grant Baker are Del Mar's stewards this summer. They already have handed down several suspensions and made several disqualifications. According to Chaney, they were in unanimous agreement on every decision, save for one.

Jockey John Velazquez, who was disqualified from fourth to fifth aboard Fourty Niners Son in Sunday's Eddie Read Handicap, was given a three-day suspension by the stewards. But the official ruling of Velazquez's suspension, though signed by all three stewards, had the word "dissenting" written parenthetically next to Chaney's signature.

"I agreed with the disqualification, but I didn't think he deserved days," Chaney said.

The stewards on Monday also fined jockey David Cohen $300 for whipping Wisdom Cat during the post parade for Friday's sixth race.

Busy time at claim box

With so many owners wanting to be in action at Del Mar, the claiming game is usually quite competitive here, and this year has been no exception.

When Guitar Man and Inexcessabeau were claimed out of Monday's final race, that brought the total of claimed horses for the week to 44 in six days of racing, an average of more than seven horses per day changing hands.

Many of those horses had several claims in for them, and needed shakes to determine the new owner.

"We tried to claim a couple for Maggi Moss, but we got outshook," West said.

Guitar Man, who won the final race on Monday, was claimed by Chuck Peery from Art Sherman.

Charm the Giant looks set for stakes

Charm the Giant, who won Monday's featured allowance race on the turf, appeared ready to head into stakes competition after cruising to her fourth victory in seven starts. Ron McAnally, who trains Charm the Giant for his wife, Debbie, said he would consider the Grade 2, $200,000 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap, for female turf runners at 1 1/16 miles on Sept. 2, for Charm the Giant's next start.

On Monday, Charm the Giant zipped a mile on turf in 1:33.04, with a final quarter-mile in a shade over 23 seconds. She beat Polyfirst by 1 3/4 lengths.

Charm the Giant, 4, won her only previous start on this course last summer. A daughter of Giant's Causeway who was bred in Ireland by Debbie McAnally, Charm the Giant has raced exclusively on turf.

Valdivia back in action

Jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. returns to action on Thursday at Del Mar with two mounts. He has been sidelined for the past month with a fractured collarbone, which he sustained when he was dumped by New Joysey Jeff in the stretch run of the Cinema Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 25.

Espinoza holds slight lead

Victor Espinoza, the leading rider last year at Del Mar, captured nine races the first week of the meet to lead apprentice sensation Martin Garcia by one victory in the jockey standings.

Jerry Hollendorfer leads all trainers with three wins from just eight starts. Ten trainers won a pair of races last week.