04/04/2004 11:00PM

Spanish Empire to be up front


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The outcome of the Grade 3, $100,000 Fifth Season Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn on Wednesday is difficult to predict because of its competitive field, but there does appear to be one certainty in the race: Spanish Empire will be closer to the pace than he was last time, in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

The 1 1/16-mile Fifth Season has drawn eight older horses, including Crafty Shaw, who is nearing $1 million in earnings, Gimmeawink, No Comprende, and Ask the Lord. All are stakes winners. Also in the race is River Mountain Rd, who is shooting for his fifth straight win Wednesday.

The Fifth Season continues the Racing Festival of the South, during which at least one stakes a day will be run at Oaklawn through the close of the meet on Saturday.

Spanish Empire has developed rapidly over the past several months. He sat just off the pace to win the $60,000 Louisiana Handicap at Fair Grounds in January, earning a 109 Beyer Speed Figure. He followed up that race with a front-running second-place finish to Olmodavor in the Grade 3 Whirlaway at Fair Grounds.

Next came the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, during which several horses were crowded on the first turn. Spanish Empire never got close to the pace, and finished seventh. Meanwhile, multiple Grade 1 winner Peace Rules set fast fractions and won the race by a head over Saint Liam.

It was a rare defeat for Spanish Empire, who had finished first or second in his five previous starts for trainer Steve Asmussen.

"His one little hiccup," said Asmussen. "He didn't have a smooth trip in the New Orleans Handicap because the spot he wanted was taken.

"He's an excellent horse. I don't want him feeling bad about that last race. I thought this was a good next spot."

Spanish Empire won his maiden wire to wire at Saratoga, then was sent to Asmussen in Kentucky last fall. He won two allowances there before moving into stakes company at Fair Grounds.

"He's a beautiful horse," said Asmussen, who is winning with 40 percent of his starters at Oaklawn. "He's big, tall, very classic looking."

Eddie Martin Jr. will ride Spanish Empire for Jubilee Stable.

River Mountain Rd won his maiden and an entry-level allowance in April 2003, then did not race again until January 2004. He won again, taking a two-other-than allowance by a half-length, and for an encore won an optional claimer on Feb. 21.

River Mountain Rd will make his stakes debut in the Fifth Season. Trainer Bob Holthus has given the mount to John McKee.