06/11/2001 11:00PM

Stakes-bound 2-year-olds emerging steadily

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AUBURN, Wash. - With a shortage of older horses and an abundance of 2-year-olds on the grounds, it is clear that juveniles will play an increasingly prominent role at the current Emerald Downs meeting.

Saturday's fifth race was the second maiden special weight race for 2-year-old fillies at the meet, and it included an impressive runner-up from the first of them, Briar Rose. Still, a first-time starter aptly named Strong Credentials went off as the 3-2 choice, and proved to be an overlay, winning the race by nearly six lengths over runner-up Briar Rose in a quick 58 seconds flat.

Strong Credentials, the first foal from a stakes-winning mare, is by leading 2-year-old sire Carson City, who stands in Kentucky for a $35,000 fee. Owner and breeder Jerre Paxton offered her at auction in Kentucky as a yearling, but bought her back for $375,000.

"Jerre liked her a lot, and he is a pretty good judge of horses," said trainer Bob McMeans. He remembers that Paxton had done the same thing years before with his champion filly, Firesweeper.

McMeans said Strong Credentials is one of three regally bred 2-year-old fillies he is training for Paxton.

"I've also got one by Pulpit and one by Boundary," he said. "Strong Credentials was the first one to be ready to race, but I like the others just as much."

Other juveniles excel

Sunday's card included a double dose of premium 2-year-olds, with the meet's second maiden special weight race for colts and geldings and the Pierce County Stakes for Washington-bred 2-year-old fillies.

Salt Grinder, a $47,000 yearling purchase by Salt Lake, duplicated Strong Credentials's feat by winning a maiden race at five furlongs at first asking in 58 seconds. But he won by only a half-length after dueling throughout the race with Slew of the Night. Strong Credentials, Salt Grinder, and Slew of the Night are all stakes candidates. I. M. Awonder, a Silver Ghost gelding trained by Bud Klokstad, also was impressive, mounting a sustained rally to finish third after breaking about five lengths behind the field.

One member of Klokstad's heavily favored entry in the $35,000 Pierce County Stakes also broke poorly but overcame the obstacle. Perfect Plan, making her career debut, lunged at the start to break eighth of nine horses, then advanced steadily to the top of the stretch, where she split rivals and reached the lead. She then drew off quickly to win by three lengths over Music to My Heart, who also broke poorly, in 58.40 for five furlongs.

"Bud said if I rode her with confidence she would get me there, so I didn't get excited when she broke slowly," said rider Gallyn Mitchell. "This filly is going places. She might even replace Bud's red mare."

Klokstad's "red mare," of course, is Ropersandwranglers, who retired with a record nine stakes wins at Emerald Downs.

"It's a little early to compare her to Ropersandwranglers, but she is a nice filly," said Klokstad. "I've liked her since the day she was born."

Klokstad and his wife, Billie, bred Perfect Plan from their good mare Personal Image, the dam of northern California stakes winner Personal Decision. Perfect Plan is by Game Plan, a Danzig stallion who stood at Packy and Julie McMurry's Royal Match Stud in Enumclaw, Wash., for three years before moving to California for the most recent breeding season.

"I'm one of the few guys who stuck with Game Plan," Klokstad said. "He's royally bred and he throws beautiful foals. I have a Game Plan colt out of Hot Ticket that makes you want to drool. I'm a huge Game Plan fan right now."

* The Pierce County Stakes was the 27th 2-year-old race at the current meeting. Last year's Pierce County, which was run a day later on the calendar, was the 14th juvenile race of that meet. The 27th 2-year-old race last year was not run until July 2.