09/28/2007 12:00AM

Salute the Sarge gets two-turn test

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - If the good 2-year-old Salute the Sarge falls short against dubious competition Sunday in the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, trainer Eric Guillot will downgrade the colt's autumn campaign.

"If he can't beat these, then he doesn't belong in the Breeders' Cup," Guillot said.

California 2-year-olds have been maligned all summer, ever since Salute the Sarge won the Grade 3, six-furlong Hollywood Juvenile on July 4. Nearly three months later, Salute the Sarge remains at the head of a shallow class.

"Drill Down, Georgie Boy, Leonides - all three of those horses are gone," Guillot said, "and we don't know how good Sarge is."

Drill Down was euthanized; Leonides bruised a foot; and Georgie Boy passed the Norfolk and will run in the California Cup.

The future is now for Salute the Sarge, who won his first three starts, including two stakes, before a runner-up finish to Georgie Boy in the Grade 1, seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity. The game changes Sunday. The 1 1/16-mile Norfolk is the first two-turn graded stakes for the division, and uncharted territory for Salute the Sarge, by sprint sire Forest Wildcat.

"Any 2-year-old that has been running long can be dangerous," Guillot said, referring to the three Norfolk starters with route experience in maiden races at Del Mar.

Shore Do and Guts finished one-two on turf; Beresford stretched out and crushed maidens by seven lengths on Polytrack.

That victory makes Beresford the main challenger. How much of an advantage is it to have won a route?

"It's big," said Beresford's trainer, Dan Hendricks. "And all the favorites are outside. We should be saving ground right behind the speed."

Beresford earned an ordinary 75 Beyer Figure running a two-turn mile, compared to the 87 that Salute the Sarge earned in the seven-furlong Futurity. But apples do not compare to oranges. When jockey Richard Migliore dismounted Beresford after the win, he said to Hendricks: "Belmont."

"I'm not waiting for the Belmont," Hendricks chuckled, and aimed for the Norfolk. "It's a competitive race, but it's not the toughest."

Alex Solis rides Beresford; Migliore sticks with Futurity fifth-place finished Dixie Chatter, one of the Norfolk favorites.

Richard Mandella trains Dixie Chatter, who was racing for the first time in two months in the Futurity. He rallied four wide, made the lead in midstretch, then flattened out.

"It didn't surprise me he came up a little tired," Mandella said.

The surprise was that he made the race at all. After a sharp July 7 maiden win over subsequent Futurity winner Georgie Boy, Dixie Chatter was treated for an ulcer in this throat, and missed nearly two weeks of training.

"I had to rush him," Mandella said.

Dixie Chatter has trained well since, and should improve second start back. But like with every other stretch-out sprinter, Mandella is unsure about the extra distance.

"We're hoping - that's the bottom line," Mandella said.

The Norfolk field likely will be reduced by at least one. Trainer Craig Dollase said Friday that the filly P. S. U. Grad was more likely to run Saturday in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf Stakes. Other Norfolk starters include minor-stakes-placed Rivergrade Boy, Drewthegentleman, Yes It's a Cat, graded-stakes-placed Sky Cape, and debut winners Dodgen Bullets and Trickster Nickster.

Dodgen Bullets won his Aug. 25 debut at Del Mar, and might be the speed of the speed. Since that race, the gelding has trained well, including a seven-furlong gate work in company with the filly Cry and Catch Me. She was the program favorite in the Oak Leaf.

Trickster Nickster looked good winning his debut two weeks ago at Fairplex, but the decision to run in the Norfolk was made only after Drill Down broke down Monday.

As for Salute the Sarge, he and jockey David Flores drew post 11 in the 12-runner field. Guillot said two slow workouts since the Futurity were by design, and for the first time in his four-start career, Salute the Sarge is expected to start favored.

Guillot is not a speed-figure handicapper. But on Sunday, the trainer and bettors are on the same side.

"From a numbers standpoint," Guillot said, "he's the horse."