01/17/2013 5:36PM

Santa Anita: Private Zone primed for breakthrough in Palos Verdes

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Private Zone has been second in three consecutive sprint stakes in Southern California since early November, leading into the stretch in each start before getting caught.

The losses have not deterred trainer Doug O’Neill, who hopes to run Private Zone in the $2 million Golden Shaheen at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 30. A win in Saturday’s $150,000 Palos Verdes Stakes at Santa Anita by Private Zone would make that a more attractive adventure.

“He’s going to run big,” O’Neill said.

Owned by Good Friends Stable, Private Zone won a Group 1 stakes in Panama in April 2012, but is winless in six starts in the United States since July. He was second in the Damascus Stakes over seven furlongs here at Santa Anita on Nov. 3, second in the Grade 3 Vernon Underwood Stakes over six furlongs at Betfair Hollywood Park on Dec. 2, and second in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes over seven furlongs on Dec. 26.

In the Malibu, Private Zone set the pace, led by a length with a furlong remaining, and was caught by Jimmy Creed, who won by three-quarters of a length. Private Zone was 15-1 in the Malibu, but will be a leading choice in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes, which is run over six furlongs.

The always optimistic O’Neill said that Private Zone has thrived in the weeks since the Malibu. He was particularly pleased with a five-furlong workout in 1:01 from the gate at Santa Anita last Monday.

“He’s got a lot of talent, but he’s a thinker,” O’Neill said. “I worked him out of the gate and he couldn’t have worked better.

“Before, if you didn’t have a horse alongside of him, he’d wait and slow down. Last time, he pulled away from his workmate. He’s very professional.”

Private Zone will be ridden by Martin Pedroza, and is expected to have the early lead in the Palos Verdes.

“He’s got a lot of speed away from there,” O’Neill said. “I expect Martin to ride with a lot of confidence.”

Private Zone is likely to be joined at the front by the quick Comma to the Top, who won the sixth stakes of his career in the Grade 3 Daytona Stakes over 6 1/2 furlongs on a wet-fast track here on Dec. 29.

“He always runs his race,” trainer Peter Miller said.

Bob Baffert has two runners – Apriority, unraced since finishing fifth in the Grade 2 Smile Sprint Handicap at Calder last July, and Drill, who was fourth in the Malibu and won two sprint stakes for 3-year-olds last year.

The 5-year-old horse Justin Philip looms as a major contender in his first start since a fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint here in November. Second in the Grade 1 Alfred Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga last August, Justin Philip is a threat from off the pace for trainer Steve Asmussen.

“I’m happy with his work and his preparation for the race has been right on,” said Scott Blasi, Asmussen’s assistant. “The way he’s been getting ready, I expect him to fire well fresh.”