01/29/2009 1:00AM

Semaphore Man out to keep top spot

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Semaphore Man proved to be the dominant sprinter at Oaklawn Park last year with wins in the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap and the $50,000 King Cotton. On Saturday, his quest to be the best this year starts anew when he defends his King Cotton title against a field that includes stakes winners Greeley's Conquest and Native Ruler.

"It's going to be a tough race," said Chris Richard, who trains Native Ruler.

The field for the six-furlong stakes also includes Silver Edition, who ran second in three consecutive graded sprint stakes between May and July.

Semaphore Man is returning to Oaklawn, where he has won 7 of 11 starts, following a stalk-and-pounce score in the $50,000 Taliaferro Memorial at Remington in his last out Nov. 16. He won the six-furlong race by 1 3/4 lengths over Wind Water, who returned in his next start to win the $50,000 KLAQ at Sunland Park with a Beyer Speed Figure of 96. Semaphore Man, 7, has turned in a strong series of local drills for the King Cotton.

"We freshened him up a little bit, and since we've gotten here we've been working and everything's going good," said Kelly Von Hemel, who trains Semaphore Man for Double Bogey Stable.

"He hasn't been laid off as long as he usually is at this point in time, so that's a little less of a concern since we just ran last fall. I think that will help a little bit."

Semaphore Man drew well, getting post 4 in the field of six. Tim Doocy will ride the gelding, who is situated to the immediate outside of one of his main rivals, Native Ruler.

Native Ruler won the $55,000 Bet on Sunshine, an overnight handicap at Churchill Downs, in his last start Nov. 22. He put up a Beyer of 102, one point higher than the 101 that Semaphore Man earned in the Taliaferro. Native Ruler, in his final work for the King Cotton, ran a bullet five furlongs in 1:01.40 on Jan. 25.

"I think he's ready to go," Richard said. "It was a good solid breeze."

Native Ruler, who is 2 for 2 at Oaklawn, won the $125,000 Iowa Sprint Handicap last June.

Greeley's Conquest shortens up in distance after finishing second to Magna Graduate in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap at a mile at Churchill in his last start Oct. 26.