03/18/2004 12:00AM

Purge suited to two turns

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Purge is the wild card in Saturday's $200,000 Rebel Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park. He has pedigree, talent, looks, and winning connections, but is untested against stakes company or around two turns.

Purge, perfect in two career starts for trainer Todd Pletcher, comes into the race off a sharp victory in an entry-level allowance sprint

Feb. 22 at Gulfstream Park. The race was his first start at 3, and he covered the six furlongs in 1:09.40.

The decision to ship Purge to Oaklawn for his two-turn debut can be read as a sign of confidence in his abilities. Pletcher said there are reasons Purge seems suited to racing around two turns, starting with the fact that he is by Pulpit, a son of A.P. Indy. His dam, Copelan's Bid Gal, won two stakes.

"He trains like a horse that wants to stretch out," he added. "And he's finished up in his races strongly, and galloped out strongly. You never know until they do it, but he's giving us the right signs."

Purge also has a good mental attitude. He has settled in nicely at Oaklawn since flying in on Tuesday, and shows some solid works for his stakes debut Saturday.

"He's a good-feeling colt," said Pletcher. "He's one of those who loves to go out there and train. He's straightforward, and goes about his business. He likes the game."

Pletcher said that with a good performance Purge could return to Oaklawn for the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 10. Pletcher has won the Arkansas Derby twice, with Balto Star in 2001 and Graeme Hall in 2000.

Bonus puts focus on Oaklawn

There will be just one horse eligible for the $5 million Centennial Bonus from Oaklawn after Saturday. The bonus rewards the horse who sweeps the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. Sunny's Halo is the only horse to ever win all three races, a feat he accomplished in 1983.

The bonus helped create excitement for the 100th anniversary meet at Oaklawn when it was announced last fall. There were 140 early nominations to the series, and most believed the Rebel, which is the first leg, would be oversubscribed. In the end, the Rebel, which goes on the same day as the Lane's End and Gotham, drew nine, including the accomplished Smarty Jones and Mr. Jester.

"I think it's a strong field, because you've got [nine] horses, every one of them contenders," said Pat Pope, racing secretary at Oaklawn. "All of them really have a reason why they're in there."

As a result, Pope feels the Rebel has the potential to send more horses to the Arkansas Derby this year than it has in recent years. He also has been impressed that connections who made plans to send horses for the Rebel when the bonus was announced last fall have followed through, including those of Smarty Jones, Mr. Jester, Gran Prospect, Pro Prado, and Proper Prado.

Desormeaux, Wren team on undercard

Kent Desormeaux, who is in from Southern California to ride Mr. Jester in the Rebel for trainer Steve Wren, will team together with Wren before that race. Desormeaux has been named to ride impressive maiden winner No Tolerance in the eighth race, a one-mile entry-level allowance for 3-year-olds. No Tolerance races for Kaaren Biggs, who also owns Mr. Jester.

Others in the 11-horse allowance include Number Juan, who was fifth in the Southwest last out for owner Michael Pegram and trainer Michael Puhich. He will add blinkers, and will be ridden by Willie Martinez. Number Juan won his maiden at Santa Anita in January.

* Owner James Spence, trainer Morris Nicks, and jockey Carlos Marquez Jr., who teamed to win last weekend's Grade 3, $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup with 29-1 shot Golden Sonata, are back in the Rebel with Archie B. The colt ran into trouble when fourth in the $100,000 Southwest. He is a closer, just like Golden Sonata.

* Trainers Bob Holthus, Pete Vestal, and Wren, who each have starters in the Rebel, have all won the race before. Holthus has won it three times, with United Holme, Our Trade Winds, and Spike Nail; Vestal has won it with Crafty Shaw and Ide; and Wren, with Etbauer.

* The forecast for Saturday is for possible sporadic showers and a high of 80.