09/27/2008 11:00PM

Regal Ransom faces the best in the West


ARCADIA, Calif. - The season's first major East-West showdown usually does not take place until the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But this fall, the battle for bragging rights has shifted from late October to late September.

The brilliant Saratoga maiden winner Regal Ransom arrived Tuesday at Santa Anita, and on Sunday he tackles the cream of the California 2-year-old division in the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes. Win, and you're in. Shucks, win the Norfolk and you're probably the favorite for the BC Juvenile.

Ten entered the 1 1/16-mile Norfolk, and even though Regal Ransom has only a debut win, he might be the horse to beat. His opposition Sunday includes Midshipman, winner of the Del Mar Futurity; Azul Leon, unbeaten winner of the Best Pal at Del Mar and Hollywood Juvenile; and Silent Valor, winner of the Sapling at Monmouth.

If Regal Ransom wins the Norfolk, it won't be the first time he defeated a good field. He won his debut Aug. 25 at Saratoga over Brave Victory, next-out winner by more than seven, and Royal Vindication, next-out winner by more than three.

Kiaran McLaughlin trains Regal Ransom for Darley Stable, and though the colt originally was scheduled to run Oct. 4 in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, the change could work in his favor. Regal Ransom is a Norfolk fill-in for Darley-owned Coronet of a Baron and Desert Party, who both will skip the race.

The shift has several possible benefits for Regal Ransom, said McLaughlin. "It's four weeks from his maiden win, four weeks to the Breeders' Cup, we get to keep jockey Alan Garcia, and we can run over the track [where the Breeders' Cup will be run]."

While the extra distance is a concern for all the Norfolk principals, McLaughlin said Regal Ransom "is as fit as any 2-year-old in the country." He has been working regularly since late May, but took longer than expected to make his debut because he needed extra schooling at the gate. Regal Ransom earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure first time out.

Azul Leon won his first three starts, including the Grade 2 Best Pal by disqualification on Aug. 10. He purposely skipped the Del Mar Futurity and is making his first start since the Best Pal, and first around two turns. Trainer Doug O'Neill says he is ready.

"I think he's going to be very tough - we trained him with the idea of going two turns," O'Neill said.

Azul Leon closed ground in all three of his starts, and probably would have won the Best Pal by open lengths if he had not been interfered with at the top of the lane.

"He's trained like a horse that ought to move forward as we add distance," O'Neill said.

Rafael Bejarano rides Azul Leon. Interestingly, Bejarano would have ridden Regal Ransom next weekend at Keeneland (Garcia has a commitment Oct. 4 at Belmont).

Midshipman won the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity last time, and trainer Bob Baffert believes he will stay two turns.

"I don't see it being a problem for him; he's got the right style," Baffert said. "It depends on how the track is playing. If they ran in the morning, I'd feel pretty good about it, but the track is different in the afternoon."

Believe in Hope finished fifth in the Del Mar Futurity in his second start, and as a son of Thunder Gulch should move up running long. Silent Valor won the Grade 3 Sapling at six furlongs for trainer Todd Pletcher last month.

Del Conte is using the Norfolk as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Street Hero finished third in the Del Mar Futurity; Tiger Blitz is the only starter with a two-turn synthetic-surface win. Brushburn and Liturgical also entered.

The Norfolk Stakes is race 8 on a 10-race card that also includes the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile.