05/15/2008 12:00AM

Ruff N Tuff stepping up in Golden Bear

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ALBANY, Calif. - Trainer Andy Mathis takes a gamble Saturday when he enters unbeaten Ruff N Tuff in the $50,000 Golden Bear Stakes for 3-year-olds at six furlongs at Golden Gate Fields.

Ruff N Tuff won his debut here on Jan. 26 for a $32,000 claiming tag and topped a starter allowance field at Bay Meadows in his other start on Feb.o28.

It's a big step from starter allowance to a stakes, especially one that includes the stakes winner Nevada Worrier and stakes-placed Pleasure Grounds. But Mathis thinks he's in a win-win situation.

"It's pretty much the last chance to sprint against 3-year-olds in a stakes," Mathis said. "If you run and win in the first allowance condition, you'd have to run in the second allowance condition against older."

While Mathis knows the Golden Bear is a tougher spot, he believes the result will tell him more about Ruff N Tuff, a 3-year-old Ann Marie Farm homebred colt by Yankee Victor. And, if he loses, he would still be eligible for the first allowance level.

"I don't usually get horses where I have to make these decisions," Mathis said. "He's a good horse. I've always liked him and thought he could be a decent horse. We'll find out Saturday if he's the real deal."

Ruff N Tuff broke slowly in each start and rallied to win easily, running the six-furlong races in 1:10.07 and 1:09.21.

"Sometimes we get too caught up in times, that he ran a 1:10 and a 1:09," Mathis said.

"He's an exciting horse. He didn't break good either start. In the first, he missed the start and was 10 lengths back, but he makes a big move and hasn't had much competition down the stretch. He'll have plenty Saturday."

Nevada Worrier, who drew the outside post in the field of six, won the Cavonnier at Santa Anita last October and has picked up checks in five straight stakes races since.

Pleasure Grounds, who may run instead in next Saturday's 1 1/16-mile Alcatraz on the turf, was second sprinting in the Stinson Beach here in January and led in the lane in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby.

Devils Afleet and Summer Haze just scored first-level allowance wins, Devils Afleet in a turf sprint down the hill at Santa Anita on April 18 and Summer Haze in a five-furlong turf race April 23 at Bay Meadows.

Possibi won three straight starts in Pennsylvania and Kentucky as a

2-year-old.