03/30/2006 12:00AM

Proven Cat continues rapid climb up ladder

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CHICAGO - Proven Cat was supposedly using a sprint race on March 7 at the National Jockey Club meet as a stepping-stone to a two-turn race a few weeks later, or so her trainer, Mark Cristel, said a couple of days before the race. But Proven Cat is so good at Hawthorne that she needs neither a prep nor any certain distance to be effective. She won that March 7 race in a gallop, scoring by more than seven lengths over third-level allowance rivals, and there is no reason Proven Cat can't take another step up the class ladder when she starts here Saturday in the featured fourth race at Hawthorne.

The race is for fourth-level allowance horses or $60,000 claimers, but the way has come on the last six months, there are no claiming tags on her immediate horizon. Cristel and his brother James claimed her last September for a mere $10,000 out of a conditioned claimer at Fairmount Park, and Proven Cat lost that race. In six subsequent starts, Proven Cat has won five times, moving from a $10,000 nonwinners-of-three claimer into Illinois-bred allowance races, and then, when she had exhausted those conditions, into open allowance company. Proven Cat has won two sprints and three routes since last October, and her combined margin of victory in those five starts was more than 30 lengths. For the March 7 blowout, accomplished with apparent ease, Proven Cat was assigned a fairly modest Beyer Speed Figure of 83, but the number might be low: She was timed in 1:11.40 for six furlongs on a very dull racetrack, and in the context of the day, the raw times seemed more significant than the Beyer suggests.

Cristel, electing to keep Proven Cat in a sprint, has given her one solid five-furlong work between starts, and Proven Cat's powerful Hawthorne stretch run probably mitigates the lack of any real pace factors in Saturday's feature. For Gillian, who makes her first start since October for trainer Christine Janks, certainly has route speed, and by default she and leading rider Chris Emigh could wind up on the lead Saturday. For Gillian won three times last season and has captured two of her three starts at Hawthorne, but she is probably more effective at distances of seven furlongs and up.

also makes her 2006 debut, breaking from the rail for trainer Hugh Robertson. An Illinois-bred, Piano Tunner has been solid the last two years, but has never displayed the sort of acceleration Proven Cat has shown during her brilliant half-year run at Hawthorne.