01/29/2009 1:00AM

Russell Road gets break for open try


Russell Road, who put up some impressive performances as a 2-year-old facing statebred competition in West Virginia, will test open stakes company when he makes his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's $50,000 Dancing Count Stakes at Laurel Park.

The six-furlong Dancing Count, which drew a field of seven, is also the first leg of this week's Magna 5.

The race had shaped up as a showdown between Russell Road and the New York-bred Mr. Fantasy, who earned an impressive Beyer Speed Figure of 97 winning his career debut at Aqueduct last month. But Mr. Fantasy is expected to remain in New York and attempt two turns in a first-level allowance for New York-breds on Sunday.

His defection makes Russell Road look like even more of a standout.

Russell Road has reeled off five consecutive victories since he added Lasix for his second start. Racing exclusively around two turns at Charles Town, Russell Road won three stakes restricted to West Virginia-breds, including the Tristate Futurity and the West Virginia Futurity with back-to-back Beyer Figures of 89 and 90.

"We really don't know how good he is, but we want to find out," said trainer James W. Casey. "He won all of his races handily and really hasn't been challenged. The question is, 'Who ran behind him?' As a 2-year-old, he was one of the best I've seen around here."

The only other horse in the field who has run close to the Beyer par of 87 for the last 10 runnings of the Dancing Count is St John's Gospel.

Based at Philadelphia Park with trainer Andrea Gonzalez, St John's Gospel won his maiden in the seven-furlong Pennsylvania Nursery in early December, then followed up by defeating open company in a first-level allowance, earning a career-best 82 Beyer.

The next-fastest horse is Great Love, who was scratched as the 4-5 morning-line favorite in a first-level optional $50,000 claimer on Thursday's card in favor of this spot. Although he needed five starts and a drop into maiden claiming company to win for the first time, Great Love has won 2 of his last 3 starts by a combined margin of more than 17 lengths. His trainer, John Robb, is off to a 6-for-17 start at Laurel's winter meet.