04/21/2010 12:00AM

Sprint appears a tricky puzzle


AUBURN, Wash. - It's just a $10,000 claiming sprint for older horses, but Friday's sixth race at Emerald Downs is notable for two reasons: It attracted a relatively full field of nine, and it's the most difficult handicapping exercise of the meeting to date.

Start with the fitness angle. Five of the entrants have raced in the past 15 days. The other four are returning from extended layoffs. But one of the layoff horses is So Whatabout, a Jim Penney-trained 5-year-old who hasn't competed since November. Penney has won with 5 of his 9 starters at the young meeting and is 8 for 12 in 2010, so it follows that So Whatabout, a four-time winner at Emerald last summer, should be live off the layoff.

Speed? Everything points to Vaderator, who has been first or second at the quarter pole in all but one of his 26 starts. He owns the top last-race Beyer Speed Figure (79 while finishing second in a six-furlong $8,000 claimer at Golden Gate on April 8) and the field's fastest career Beyer (a 101 achieved at Golden Gate back in 2007).

Vaderator, making his first start for trainer Frank Lucarelli, figures to set the pace, but can he stay the six furlongs? He has finished second five times in his past 10 starts, squandering a lead each time.

Immigration and Emancipated, who ran second and third in a $10,000 claimer on opening night, fit the profile of sharp horses eligible to improve in their second start after a layoff. But Immigration, a three-time stakes winner at 2, is 1 for 32 since the end of the 2006 meeting. Emancipated, who won the restricted Trooper Seven Stakes at one mile in 2008, is winless in 12 starts since, and his jockey (Joe Crispin) and trainer (Robbie Baze) are winless at the current stand.

Perhaps the race will be determined by the riders, in which case Toutlelew would rank with the leading contenders. Ricky Frazier, Emerald's defending riding champion, has the call, and Frazier won on Toutlelew twice last summer. A late-running sprinter, Toutlelew figures to be prominent in the final furlong, particularly if Vaderator falters.

The field also includes a trio of promising 4-year-olds: Bijou Barrister, who finished 2009 with four consecutive victories at Portland Meadows; Eighty Eight, who is dropping two levels following an even effort for $17,500 on April 10; and Mister Licorice, who was competitive against similar horses in Northern California over the winter.