03/17/2008 12:00AM

Sierra Sunset still learning


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Sierra Sunset ran the race of his career to win the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, and it appears he still has room to improve. He has been getting lessons in rationing his speed and will have another month's worth of education before his next assignment: the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 12.

Sierra Sunset raced in second early in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, then overtook pacesetter Sacred Journey after six furlongs in 1:11.61. He went on to a three-length win and earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 99.

"He's getting better about his relaxation, but he's still a work in progress," said Jeff Bonde, who trains Sierra Sunset. "Each race he's gotten a little better about not being so keen and eager to run early."

Bonde sent Sierra Sunset from his Northern California base to Oaklawn last month to run in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes. The horse finished second after tracking Sacred Journey early in that race and then taking the lead in the stretch. Sierra Sunset was overtaken by the late-running, undefeated Denis of Cork.

Following the race, Bonde decided to keep Sierra Sunset at Oaklawn, where he turned in a strong set of works for the Rebel. His effort in the Southwest and his victory in the Rebel will make him a horse-for-course heading into the Arkansas Derby.

"This is one racetrack that it's tough to ship into without training on it a little bit and think you're going to win," Bonde said of remaining at Oaklawn after the Southwest. "So, I thought if he stayed here his chances would improve and that he may step up more. His works along the way seemed to show that he was enjoying the track."

Bonde said Sierra Sunset will remain at Oaklawn through the Arkansas Derby.

Top fillies will be back for Fantasy

Eight Belles and Pure Clan are both taking the Oaklawn route to the Kentucky Oaks, and the two are scheduled to meet next in the Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy Stakes here April 6. It will be their second matchup. Eight Belles was a 1 1/4-length winner over Pure Clan in the Grade 3, $100,000 Honeybee here Sunday, which was Pure Clan's first race since winning the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs on Nov. 24.

For the up-and-coming Eight Belles, it was her third straight win following a 15-length allowance score at Fair Grounds in January and a 13o1/2-length victory in a division of the $50,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn in February. She won the Honeybee in hand under Ramon Dominguez and earned a 91 Beyer.

"She ran very well and came home good," said Larry Jones, who trains Eight Belles. "She came home the last five-sixteenths in [30.60]. That's good, and especially for [Dominguez] not having to ask her for her best. She's finishing up well all the time. Distance doesn't appear that it's going to be a problem."

Pure Clan had won all four of her starts heading into the Honeybee. She closed with determination through the stretch after racing behind a slow pace Sunday.

"We're disappointed she didn't win, but we're happy with her performance," said Bob Holthus, who trains Pure Clan. "It's not very often you catch one like that the first time out."

Razo due back on Wednesday

Leading rider Eddie Razo Jr. is scheduled to ride here Wednesday after missing most of last week due to soreness in his back. Razo was thrown from a mount during morning training hours last Thursday, according to his agent, Lindy McDaniel.

Razo has been in command of the Oaklawn standings since the first week of the meet. He leads all riders with 32 wins. Calvin Borel is second in the standings with 29 wins, and Luis Quinonez, who is serving a three-day suspension for a riding infraction, is third with 26.

Among the mounts Razo had to miss last week was Liberty Bull, whom he was named to ride at Sunland in the $600,000 WinStar Derby. The horse won under Gerard Melancon.

* Jordan Kilburn of Dumas, Ark., won the truck and boat giveaway at Oaklawn on Saturday, where a meet-high crowd of 29,961 watched the Rebel. Handle on the 11-race card from all sources was a meet-high $5,873,589.