12/13/2008 1:00AM

Presious Passion tries to regain form

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MIAMI - Thirteen horses entered the 1 1/2-mile W.L. McKnight Handicap, but only three of those - defending champion Presious Passion, Always First, and Hard Top - have won at the distance on turf. It is a telling statistic that should help handicappers narrow down the contenders in the Grade 2, which is one of four graded stakes to be decided Saturday at Calder.

Presious Passion prompted the pace before edging away to a 1 1/4-length decision over 3-2 favorite Stream of Gold as a 67-1 outsider in the 2007 McKnight. He returned over the same distance four months later to upset the Grade 3 Pan American at Gulfstream. Presious Passion's most important win came last summer when he captured the Grade 1 United Nations going 1 3/8 miles at Monmouth Park.

"He'd never won beyond a mile and one-eighth before this race a year ago, but I always knew he could go that far," trainer Mary Hartmann said.

Presious Passion's form has tailed off since his win in the United Nations, a four-race winless streak that Hartmann blames primarily on the fact he has caught wet turf courses in three of those four starts. The local forecast called for rain Thursday night but clear skies in the local area for Saturday.

Presious Passion will share high weight of 118 pounds with Always First, who began his career in England and won the Grade 2 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park for trainer Neil Drysdale in 2005. He was transferred to trainer Tom Voss the following summer. Voss won the 2004 McKnight with Dreadnaught.

Always First has registered 5 of his 7 career wins at 1 1/2 miles, including the Grade 3 Sycamore at Keeneland this fall. Voss said he stopped on Always First to have a chip removed from his knee after winning the 1 1/2-mile Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park in September 2007. In his most recent start, Always First finished fourth over boggy ground in the Grade 2 Red Smith at Aqueduct.

Hard Top was transferred to trainer Todd Pletcher earlier this year after beginning his career in Europe and the United Arab Emirates. Hard Top, who has posted 2 of his 3 career victories at 1 1/2 miles, finished fifth in the Red Smith in just his second U.S. appearance.

"I was real pleased with his first race for us because I knew he needed more distance," Pletcher said. "I was disappointed in the Red Smith, but John [Velazquez] said he felt he just didn't handle the soft turf. I think he's got some quality to him and if he shows up with his 'A' game, I think he fits in this spot."

Summer Patriot, third in the Grade 1 Turf Classic Invitational in his first ever graded stakes start, and Grade 3 winner Strait of Mewsina are among the other key contenders in the McKnight.

Plesa strong in both the Noe and Hooper

Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. appears to hold the upper hand in the two Grade 3 stakes on the card, the $100,000 Kenny Noe Jr. Handicap and $100,000 Fred W. Hooper Handicap. Plesa sends out 121-pound highweight Yesbyjimminy as the heavy favorite in the seven-furlong Kenny Noe as well as the pair of 121-pound highweights Gottcha Gold and Grade 3 winner Hey Byrn in the 1 1/8-mile Hooper.

Yesbyjimminy brings a five-race win streak into the Kenny Noe.

"He's obviously on top of his game, is training great, and is versatile enough to be placed wherever the rider wants to put him," Plesa said.

Gottcha Gold, runner-up in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, was beaten a head by It's a Bird after being hard-used from gate to wire in the Grade 3 Spend a Buck Handicap on Oct. 18. Most of that battle came with Finallymadeit, who will break adjacent to Gottcha Gold in the Hooper.

"I think Gottcha Gold is a better horse than the one who beat him last time and Finallymadeit, but this will be a rider's race and what happens in the opening half-mile will probably dictate the outcome," Plesa said.

Hey Byrn, winner of the Grade 3 Holy Bull in April, will take on older horses for just the second time Saturday.

"He's not a sprinter and his last start really sharpened him up," Plesa said. "I don't know how the 3-year-old crop shapes up against the older horses, but his style sets him up in here and he could step up with a real big effort as sharp as he is right now."

It's a Bird, who also was entered in the McKnight and Kenny Noe, had his three-race win streak snapped when finishing fourth at even money behind Finallymadeit last month in the Carl G. Rose Classic.