05/13/2009 11:00PM

Showdown of fresh horses in Miss Preakness


Everything that Mani Bhavan accomplished last year, and it was a lot, occurred before Heart Ashley made her first start. In the more than six months that have followed, Heart Ashley has developed into one of the leading 3-year-old filly sprinters in the country. That good recent form may very well prove the difference on Friday, when Heart Ashley faces the comebacking Mani Bhavan in a terrific edition of the Grade 3, $100,000 Miss Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

Heart Ashley, whose career began Oct. 29, has won three times and finished second twice in her five starts. She comes off the best race of her life, a front-running 2 1/2-length score in the Grade 3 Cicada at Aqueduct on March 14. The Miss Preakness, like the Cicada, is at six furlongs.

"I thought she ran an excellent race in the Cicada," said Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Heart Ashley. "Everything went her way. She had a very clean trip, and I don't think some of the others did, and she took advantage of it."

Heart Ashley has not raced for two months, the longest gap since her career began. The Cicada, her stakes debut, was chosen after plans to go to a race at Gulfstream fell through.

"She came out of the race a little tired and we decided to give her a little more time," Asmussen said. "She rewarded us for our patience, so we're trying to do the right thing."

Mani Bhavan burst onto the scene with three straight sprint wins last summer, including the Grade 1 Spinaway and Grade 2 Adirondack at Saratoga. She was given a lengthy vacation after faltering to finish seventh and last in the Alcibiades Stakes on Oct. 3 at Keeneland, which was her only start around two turns and her only race on a synthetic surface.

Mani Bhavan has turned in a series of fast works for her return, and she showed last year that she can run well fresh.

Six others are entered in the race, including the unbeaten fillies Cinderella's Wish and Snow Lass. Gatorette, the third choice on the morning line, may opt for the $65,000 Just Smashing at Monmouth on Saturday, trainer David Fawkes said.

"This race came up really tough," he said.

Mr. Nightlinger liable to improve

The Bret Calhoun-trained turf sprinter Chamberlain Bridge finished third in the April 11 Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland, then came back to win the Aegon Turf Sprint on Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. The Calhoun-trained turf sprinter Mr. Nightlinger finished fifth in the Shakertown, and - if you ask Calhoun - has a great chance to win the $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint on Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico.

Mr. Nightlinger was one of 14 horses entered in the Turf Sprint, but win threat Smart Enough has been withdrawn. That still leaves the five-furlong grass race with a strong core of True to Tradition, Heros Reward, and Mr. Nightlinger. A host of secondary contenders includes horses like Awakino Cat, Rouse the Cat, and Blue Sailor.

Mr. Nightlinger won five straight races last year after being switched to grass, but faded to 11th after dueling on a crazy pace in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. A foot abscess compromised Mr. Nightlinger's preparation for his 2009 comeback, and Mr. Nightlinger "wasn't ready" for the Shakertown, Calhoun said.

"I missed several works with him, but we decided to go ahead and run him and give him a race," said Calhoun. "He's had no problems since. I like him in this spot."

True to Tradition, a top East Coast-based turf sprinter in 2008, also has fought foot problems. A quarter crack has limited the horse to one 2009 breeze, and True to Tradition hasn't raced since a seventh in the BC Turf Sprint. Still, trainer Scott Lake says not to discount him.

"He's pretty good when he's fresh," Lake said. "I expect him to run well."

And there is no way to get around Heros Reward. The 7-year-old Maryland-bred Heros Reward won the Shakertown in his 2009 debut, and is 3 for 3 over the Pimlico grass course for trainer Dale Capuano.

- Marcus Hersh

Skipat: All Giving tops short field

All Giving heads a two-horse, uncoupled entry sent out by trainer Flint Stites in the $50,000 Skipat Stakes for fillies and mares at six furlongs. A field of six was entered, but La Chica Rica will be scratched after winning Tuesday night's $75,000 Hancock County Handicap at Mountaineer.

All Giving has won 10 of 30 starts, including all three at Pimlico, albeit two of those were on turf two years ago. In her last two starts, both at Laurel Park, All Giving was beaten a neck by Fancy Diamond in the Conniver Stakes and finished third, 1o1/4 lengths behind dead-heat winners Cammy's Choice and Access Fee in the Primonetta Stakes.

Stites said he believes his filly was compromised by the wind in the Primonetta.

"The wind was blowing really hard so that when she made that wide move it kept blowing her over heels of the inside horse,'' Stites said. "If she had a clear shot to run I think she would have been right there.''

Stites also sends out Mikeslittlegirl, who figures to lay back and make one run under Ramon Dominguez.

Fancy Diamond, What Time It Is, and Mysterious Bandit figure to battle for the early lead.

- David Grening

The Very One: Smart and Fancy again

A year ago, trainer Tony Dutrow brought Smart and Fancy off an eight-month layoff, primed and ready for a start in Pimlico's $50,000 The Very One Stakes for female turf sprinters. But then the rains came, forcing the race to the main track. Favored despite the switch, Smart and Fancy finished third. Then she won her next three races, all turf sprints.

If the weather cooperates on Friday, Smart and Fancy will begin a new campaign in The Very One. After getting her usual winter break, Smart and Fancy - a winner of 13 of 23 starts - is scheduled to return in the five-furlong grass race. And, like last year, she should be favored.

A remarkably consistent mare, Smart and Fancy, now 6, has finished in the money 21 times. She has been particularly effective in five-furlong turf sprints, winning 5 of 7. But she will have to weave her way through a field of 13 following the scratch on Wednesday of Golden Spirits.

Her main rivals include Ahvee's Destiny and Canadian Ballet, trained by the queen of turf sprinters, Linda Rice. Ahvee's Destiny returned from a four-month layoff to beat a money-allowance field at Gulfstream on April 23.

"She's coming back on short rest, but she drew a good post," Rice said of Ahvee's Destiny, who is in post 3. "I was pleased she won off the layoff. She was in need of a vacation. I'm hoping to have a good season with her."

Rice said there was "a better than 50-percent chance" she would start both runners, but if only one goes, it would be Ahvee's Destiny. Canadian Ballet has not raced since October.

"She could be a little short, but she's a very nice filly," Rice said. "She should improve with age."

- Jay Privman

Hilltop: Blind Date stretches out

Blind Date has never raced around two turns, but her turf debut April 18 at Pimlico stamps her as a major player in the $50,000 Hilltop Stakes, the last of 13 races Friday.

The Hilltop, for 3-year-old fillies, drew a field of 10, including the coupled entry of Classic Art and Calm Bay, and is carded for 1 1/16 miles on turf. All four of Blind Date's starts - of which she has won three - have come in sprints, but she has the body and pedigree of a route horse, and she made a striking stretch run last out to win five-furlong Hookedonthefeelin Stakes over this grass course.

Seminole Lass, second last out in a minor Gulfstream Park turf stakes, and Rena, a Gulfstream turf maiden winner for trainer Dale Romans, should also attract significant betting support.

- Marcus Hersh