06/15/2006 11:00PM

Spanish Highway prefers soft track

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AUBURN, Wash. - Trainer Bill Tollett was all smiles at his Emerald Downs barn on Wednesday morning. Spanish Highway had just worked a half-mile in a sprightly 47.20 seconds in his final prep for Sunday's $75,000 Emerald Handicap at a mile, and he was traveling soundly on the hotwalker. Just a few days earlier, Spanish Highway had been favoring a tender foot.

"He was dead lame on Sunday," said Tollett. "That is something we have been battling his entire career, though. His feet have very thin walls and very thin soles, so when the track gets a little bit hard his feet start stinging. When they get to bothering him too much, he'll bleed into his lungs and we have to turn him out. That's why he has never run more than twice over this track in any one season, and up until his last race he had never won over this track."

Spanish Highway's last race was a sharp win over Flamethrowintexan in the May 29 FSN Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs. In his prior outing, he finished a highly creditable second to Starbird Road in the six-furlong Seattle Handicap. Tollett noted that he raced over the same kind of surface in both of those good outings.

"Both times it had been raining, but the track dried out on the day of the race and they were able to cut a nice cushion," he said. "There was still some moisture in the track, and it was soft."

It should come as no surprise that Tollett is hoping for a similar surface on Sunday.

"Ideally, it will keep raining through Saturday, then it will dry out and leave a nice, soft racetrack for our race on Sunday," he said. "If the track is soft enough, I'm quite sure he will run very well. He is good now, and a flat mile is his best distance. All he needs is a soft surface."

Tollett has won with 9 of his 33 starters at the meet, and has already won a pair of stakes with Spanish Highway and Diamond Dollars. He is enjoying the positive side of one of the game's enduring truths.

"When things are going good, everything falls into place," he said. "When they are going bad, nothing does."

Flamethrowintexan still fresh

Even a perfect setup won't make Spanish Highway the favorite on Sunday, however. The fans made Flamethrowintexan a 9-5 choice in the FSN, which marked his seasonal debut, and nobody who saw his performance is likely to get off his bandwagon.

Flamethrowintexan, a winner of four stakes and nearly $500,000, led through a half-mile in a suicidal 43.40 before being passed by Spanish Highway inside the furlong marker. At that point, Flamethrowintexan had every reason to call it a day. Instead, he dug back in to be beaten only a neck at the wire.

"He ran an excellent race," said Kay Cooper, assistant to trainer Jim Penney. "He obviously went too fast for the first half-mile, but he was still running at the end. And the most remarkable thing about his race was that he wasn't really very tired afterwards. You would think an effort like that would knock him out, but that wasn't the case at all."

Cooper admitted that she would have loved to get another sprint prep into Flamethrowintexan before asking him to stretch out to a mile, but she was making no excuses.

"We were able to get a strong five-furlong workout into him last week, and he went a mile at a two-minute lick on Tuesday," she said. "I'm satisfied with the way he is coming into this race."

Norm's Nephew has upset potential

The spoiler in the Emerald Cap could be Norm's Nephew, who was named the meet's top 3-year-old here last year. Norm's Nephew, a son of Jazzing Around, ran a deceptively good third when making his first start against older horses in the FSN.

"Just when he got rolling in the stretch, a horse drifted out in front of him and he had to steady and angle outside," said trainer Jimmy Orr. "I can't say it cost him a position, but he definitely would have been closer at the finish."

As it was, Norm's Nephew was beaten only two lengths.

"He definitely showed he belongs, and I was very pleased," said Orr. "You never really know what to expect when you jump in with those tough older horses, but Norm showed that he can compete with them. He came out of the race bouncing, and he showed last year that he can go long. I've got to feel that he has a chance, anyway."

Marva Jean won't run again

Trainer Frank Lucarelli reported that Marva Jean has been retired and will be bred next spring. Marva Jean, a 6-year-old daughter of West by West, was named Emerald's top sprinter last year after winning three consecutive stakes. She was turned out in May after a pair of subpar efforts, but owners Chris and Diane Randall initially intended to bring her back at this meeting.

"We got to thinking about it and we just decided it made sense to retire her now," said Lucarelli. "There is no guarantee there would be a race for her if we did bring her back, and anyway, what does she have left to prove? She should be an excellent broodmare, so why not just let her get on to her next career?"

Lucarelli said Marva Jean was special. She had a rare burst of speed that could be employed out of the gate, on the turn, or down the stretch, depending on what was required.

Marva Jean retires with earnings of $144,520 from 7 wins in 31 starts.