06/10/2008 12:00AM

Raving Rocket seeks 11th straight win


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Stephen Foster Handicap Day is Saturday, meaning the quality of racing at Churchill Downs might be a little light in the preceding days. Indeed, the nine-race Thursday program comprises mostly claiming races, including a couple of bottom-rung maiden-claimers, although the racing office did throw together a couple of decent allowance races with six-horse fields.

The Thursday card also happened to attract a horse on a 10-race winning streak, and the card presents an interesting contrast to the equine royalty - think Curlin - that Churchill fans will get to see some 48 hours later.

The Thursday allowances are races 7 and 8, while the horse with the impressive string of victories, Raving Rocket, will help open the card in race 1 at 1:15 p.m. Eastern in a starter-allowance sprint with a $13,600 purse.

Based at Fairmount Park for the prominent owner-trainer team of Louis O'Brien and Ralph Martinez, Raving Rocket began his undefeated run in a Fairmount allowance on June 12, 2007 - so, yes, by coincidence, the anniversary is Thursday. In the interim, the 6-year-old gelding has reeled off nine more triumphs, all under starter-allowance conditions, and an 11th straight victory Thursday would not be surprising, considering he will face just four rivals while remaining in the comfortable confines of starter company. Martinez named Robby Albarado to ride Raving Rocket in the six-furlong race.

As for the allowance races, the eighth, a $47,400 turf route, drew several accomplished older horses, most notably A.P. Xcellent, whose claim to fame is a nose defeat to Lava Man in the Hollywood Gold Cup last summer.

A.P. Xcellent, a 5-year-old horse sold last November at Keeneland after a productive 15 races for previous trainer John Shirreffs, has been a sharp second in as many tries since coming under the care of Niall O'Callaghan. Both of those recent races came over the Churchill turf, and with very little change in the variables for Thursday, he should once again be a major factor.

Probably the main challengers to A.P. Xcellent are Wise River, a solid performer trained by Clark Hanna, and Nolan's Cat, the third-place finisher in the 2005 Belmont Stakes.

The seventh race, a $43,100, entry-level route on the dirt, is well-matched, with perhaps El Caballo and Gold Bells Spin, both coming off victories, rating as the ones to beat.