04/15/2006 12:00AM

Ripe Tomato can pounce


CHICAGO - The trainer Clayton Pierce never has had more than a handful of horses in his stable. A handful, in fact, constitutes a somewhat populous season. But every now and again a decent one comes Pierce's way, and Ripe Tomato is at least decent. She has won two of her four starts, finished second and third in her two others, and looks like one of the primary contenders in the featured seventh race on Monday at the National Jockey Club meet.

There are seven entered in the Monday feature, for second-level Illinois-bred allowance horses at six furlongs. Ripe Tomato drew on the far outside, which should be a good fit for her pace-pressing style.

Ripe Tomato, bred and owned by Jay Collier, is a daughter of Lord Carson, and Collier and Pierce took at least a little chance starting her for a $15,000 claiming tag in her career debut last November. Ripe Tomato coughed up a big stretch lead that day and finished second, but she was merely a race away from her best, and cruised to a next-out victory over Illinois-bred maiden-special-weight rivals. That was it for 2005, but Ripe Tomato came out running in her 2006 debut, winning an entry-level, statebred-restricted sprint allowance by a head here March 4, before pressing the pace and settling for third in her most recent start on March 27.

Ripe Tomato raced four wide that day, but Monday she and jockey Shane Laviolette could easily settle right in behind a pace battle between inside-drawn L'Esprit D'or and Weekend Rates, who has the stall right inside Ripe Tomato's. A trip like that could send Pierce back to the winner's circle for the second time this season - a nice pace for a small outfit like his.

L'Esprit D'or can win if she avoids an early speed duel. She hasn't been out since September, but trainer Richard Hazelton's layoff horses have been firing this meet, and L'Esprit D'or is talented enough. After finishing second or third in her first three starts last summer, she won a maiden race by 10 lengths and an entry-level allowance by more than four.

Tee Lak broke through with an overdue second career victory in her most recent start, winning by two lengths on March 24 at Hawthorne. But two races ago she was outgamed by Ripe Tomato, and expecting consecutive peak efforts from a horse like Tee Lak might be a stretch.