03/09/2006 1:00AM

Round Pond, Happy Ticket a riders' race


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It is difficult to separate Grade 1 winners Happy Ticket and Round Pond on talent, making strategy a key factor Saturday when they meet for the first time in the Grade 3, $175,000 Azeri Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn Park.

The Azeri, a 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares, could turn into a riders' race, with the decisions of Robby Albarado, aboard Happy Ticket, and Stewart Elliott, on Round Pond, going a long way toward dictating the result.

On paper, it appears Happy Ticket, who will tote high weight, could get a tactical trip, possibly racing right behind Round Pond, who comes into the Azeri off a sprint. Round Pond drew the rail for the Azeri, and Happy Ticket will break right to her outside, from gate 2.

For race strategy, John Servis, who trains Round Pond, defers to Elliott.

"That's Stew's call," he said. "I'll let him ride her."

, a 4-year-old who was assigned 113 pounds under the allowance conditions of the Azeri, won a six-furlong optional claimer in 1:09.80 at Oaklawn on Feb. 16 in her first start since July.

"I guess the most impressive thing to me was the turn of foot she showed," said Servis. "If she moves forward off that race, it will be interesting."

Round Pond raced about three lengths back early in her comeback. "She can just sit comfortable, depending on the pace," Elliott said. "If the pace is quick, she can lay back a little bit. If it's slow, she's not going to let them get away."

, a 5-year-old mare who will tote 119, also has tactical speed. She invades from Louisiana, where in her last start she was a 5 1/2-length winner of the $100,000 Distaff for Louisiana-breds at Evangeline on Feb. 18. The one-mile race was her first start in three months.

"She just went around there with the greatest of ease, and won in hand like she needed to," said Andrew Leggio, who trains Happy Ticket.

In that race, Happy Ticket stalked the leaders early.

"She sat off a pace that went in 49, so she's got versatility," said Albarado. "She's got speed to be in the race if you need to, if there's no pace. Or, she can sit off of horses."

La Reason, Platinum Ballet, Daddy's Petunia, and complete the field.

In the seventh race, a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer, multiple Grade 3 winner Alumni Hall runs with blinkers off. The race also drew Pass Rush, a winner of $579,000.