06/06/2006 11:00PM

Red Fort's time may have arrived

Benoit & Associates
Red Fort (4) gets another shot after having to settle for second behind Sweet Return in last year's Whittingham.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A year later than expected, Red Fort is ready for a breakthrough performance on Saturday in the $350,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Last year, Red Fort posted close seconds in the Inglewood and Whittingham handicaps at Hollywood. Then he had his season derailed by an ankle injury.

Saturday's Whittingham could provide Red Fort with his first major stakes win. A stakes winner in England in 2004, the 6-year-old Red Fort is well-suited to the Whittingham distance of 1 1/4 miles on turf.

The Whittingham marks Red Fort's second start of the year. He finished fourth in the Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap on April 29, losing by 1 1/2 lengths. The Inglewood was Red Fort's first start in more than 10 months.

"I thought he ran really well," trainer Neil Drysdale said of the comeback.

Red Fort will be Drysdale's lone starter in the Grade 1 Whittingham. Fourty Niners Son, the winner of the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Turf Championship last October, is being held out of the Whittingham in favor of the $250,000 American Handicap on July 2, Drysdale said.

Red Fort must beat a group expected to include Lava Man, who won the Khaled Stakes for statebreds on the turf here in April; T.H. Approval, the winner of the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita in April; and King's Drama, the winner of the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita in March.

"Lava Man will be difficult to beat," Drysdale said.

While Lava Man is unbeaten in three starts this year, including the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in March, he has yet to win a graded stakes on turf. The Grade 1 Whittingham will be the fiercest test on turf of Lava Man's career.

In a way, the presence of Lava Man could help Red Fort. Lava Man is likely to lead or dispute the pace, while Red Fort will be tracking the leaders. Such tactics nearly worked twice last year.

"Red Fort is handy," Drysdale said. "You can do whatever you want with him."

Downthedustyroad sharp for Oaks

Downthedustyroad, who was stakes-placed at Oaklawn Park earlier this year, makes her first start for owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert in Sunday's $150,000 Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks. Judging from the times of her recent workouts, the Arkansas-bred Downthedustyroad may have a future in California.

Baffert was impressed with Downthedustyroad's six-furlong workout in 1:12.20 at Santa Anita on Monday, which equaled the fastest of 12 works at the distance. Bob and John, who is entered for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, worked in the same time.

"She worked by herself," Baffert said. "She worked just as good as Bob and John."

Downthedustyroad previously was trained by Richard Jackson for owner Shirley Walls. In five starts at Oaklawn Park, Downthedustyroad won three races, including a maiden race for $25,000 claimers. She finished third in the Rainbow Miss Stakes for statebred sprinters in April.

The Grade 2 Oaks at 1 1/16 miles is her first start in a graded stakes and first around two turns.

"Since I've had her, she's getting stronger and stronger," Baffert said. "Her last two works have been pretty good. I'm hoping she can stretch out. It will be a good test for her."

The Oaks field is expected to include the undefeated Squallacious, who is making her stakes debut; She's an Eleven, the winner of the Melair Stakes here in April; and Bettarun Fast, the winner of the Railbird Stakes here on May 6.

"The horse to beat is Squallacious, but she's coming back in 11 days," Baffert said.

Trainer Christopher Paasch said he probably won't run Diplomat Lady or Mystery Girl in the Oaks, and has chosen races on the East Coast for their next starts.

Diplomat Lady, who won the Hollywood Starlet Stakes here last December, is expected to start in the Prioress Stakes at Belmont Park on July 8, Paasch said. He is hoping to run Diplomat Lady in the Test Stakes at Saratoga later this summer.

"We'll sell her in November as a broodmare or racing prospect," Paasch said.

Mystery Girl, second in the Railbird Stakes, will be pointed for the Azalea Breeders' Cup Stakes at Calder on July 15.

Abrams joins TOC board

Trainer Barry Abrams has been appointed to the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. His one-year term began on May 26.

Abrams, whose stable is based at Santa Anita, has been a Thoroughbred trainer since 1993, having previously operated a Standardbred stable.

Abrams has trained such notable horses as Famous Digger, Juliesugardaddy, Kachamandi, Lennyfromalibu, and Speaking of Time. Many horses in his stable are by the California-based stallion Unusual Heat.