01/11/2011 4:46PM

Seans Silverdancer will step up in class in Silverbulletday

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Seans Silverdancer, an Illinois-bred, will face open company in the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds.

Trainer Lisa Merritt will try to continue her Fair Grounds winning streak when Seans Silverdancer starts in the Silverbulletday Stakes on Jan. 22 in New Orleans. Merritt won with the last horse she shipped in to Fair Grounds, a maiden named Cartoonist. Cartoonist also happens to be the only horse Merritt has shipped to Fair Grounds. And that was back in December 2003.

“It’s been a long time,” Merritt said Tuesday, reached as she was driving to New Orleans from Kentucky.

Seans Silverdancer preceded her trainer by a week, and already turned in a work over the Fair Grounds main track, breezing five furlongs in a near-bullet 1:00.40 Monday morning. Seans Silverdancer traveled from Merritt’s base at Keeneland to Fair Grounds with her assistant, Terril Corman, and went into the barn of trainer Helen Pitts, for whom Merritt’s sister, Belinda Sims, serves as an assistant. Merritt, who races primarily in Chicago, has been given three stalls in Barn 30, and will soon set up shop with Seans Silverdancer and two other horses she has brought south.

Cartoonist raced at Fair Grounds under the care of trainer Bettye Gabriel, meaning Seans Silverdancer will mark her first official runner at Fair Grounds. The filly earned her Louisiana trip by starting her career this past fall with consecutive wins, first capturing an Illinois-bred sprint maiden race, then stretching out to two turns to win the Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante by more than nine lengths.

“She’s a nice filly,” Merritt said. “Can she compete with those kind of fillies? I don’t know, but we’re going to find out. So far, she’s handled everything real well.”

Seans Silverdancer, a Najran filly owned by Slapshot Racing, is scheduled to have one more work before the Silverbulletday, a race that was called the Tiffany Lass until this year.

Justin Phillip to add blinkers

Lecomte Stakes hopeful Justin Phillip was out for a five-furlong workout Monday morning sporting a new piece of headgear, equipped for the first time with a set of blinkers. Justin Phillip earned his way into the Lecomte with a 3 1/4-length win Jan. 1 in his two-turn debut, but the First Samurai colt ducked out sharply during the stretch run that day, behavior that motivated the equipment change. Trainer Steve Asmussen said he already has been granted permission by Fair Grounds stewards to make the change after a winning performance.

“I spoke with the stewards and the starter, and had him up to the gate, and everything is okay for him to run that way,” Asmussen said. “Watching the replay after the race, I thought that he ducked when Shaun [Bridgmohan] pulled his stick through. Hopefully, this will help him.”

Justin Phillip, owned by Zayat Stables, is scheduled for one final Lecomte drill on Monday. In five starts he has never finished worse than fifth, and his maiden win at Belmont in September earned a high speed rating.

“He’s a very impressive horse,” Asmussen said. “He’s got a lot of talent.”

Asmussen, meanwhile, has made his way to the top of the Fair Grounds trainer standings despite having sent a 25-horse string to California for the first time this winter. Through Monday’s program, Asmussen’s barn had won 18 races, four more than trainers Bret Calhoun and Michelle Lovell.

Average daily handle up 14 percent

The recent 5 percent purse increase put into place by Fair Grounds was spurred by solid average-daily handle gains over last season.

Through the end of December, total average daily handle was up about 14 percent from November and December 2009, according to figures provided by the Louisiana State Racing Commission. Average daily handle through a 25-day period in 2010 was $3,143,978 compared to $2,693,796 during 32 days in November and December 2009. On-track handle during the same period rose about 4 percent.

The gains posted this season still don’t come close to the declines from 2008 to 2009, but Fair Grounds decision to return to its traditional Thanksgiving opener, rather than beginning its meet early in November, as it did in 2009, obviously has helped business.