03/17/2006 12:00AM

Rodeo's Castle can go to front in Hot Springs

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - There is no shortage of sprint talent in the $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Sunday, but there appears to be a shortage of front-runners. It is a scenario that could favor the quick Rodeo's Castle, whose chief rivals include Stolen Time, Santana Strings, Level Playingfield, and Joe Six Pack.

comes into the six-furlong race off a second-place finish in an optional claiming sprint at Oaklawn on Feb. 26. He was prominent throughout, and overtaken in the later stages by Level Playingfield.

"He ran a really good race," said Beverly Fowler, who trains Rodeo's Castle. "And he probably needed that race. I feel like he'll run stronger in this race. He's really doing very well."

Earlier this year, Rodeo's Castle won the $275,000 Duncan F. Kenner Breeders' Cup at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs. He broke from an outside post in that race and stalked the pace, and for the Hot Springs drew gate 8.

Rodeo's Castle races for Byron House III, and will be ridden by John Jacinto.

unleashed a powerful bid up the rail to win the optional claimer by 2 3/4 lengths, and covered the six furlongs in a sharp 1:10.20. For his effort, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 98, the highest last-race number in the Hot Springs.

"I thought he was very impressive," said Bob Holthus, who trains Level Playingfield. "I think he's a better horse [this year]. He's matured. He's grown, filled out, and he trains better."

Level Playingfield, a Grade 3 winner, will be ridden by John McKee.

won the Grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga last August. He enters the Hot Springs off a troubled eighth-place finish in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28. Before that race, he closed fast for fourth in the $150,000 Jack Dudley at Calder Race Course.

"He got stopped bad in the Sunshine Millions," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Santana Strings.

Stolen Time enters the Hot Springs off a second-place finish to the now-retired Beau's Town in the $50,000 King Cotton Stakes in his last start, on Feb. 4. He used stalking tactics in that race, and has moved forward with each of his starts this year. Trainer Ralph Nicks has given the mount to Robby Albarado.

Joe Six Pack enters the Hot Springs off a third-place finish in the King Cotton. Others in the field include Bubba Gum, That Tat, and Stormy Business.