04/18/2007 12:00AM

Stakes cast back for encore

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AUBURN, Wash. - The gang's all here for Friday's opener at Emerald Downs.

That, to a remarkable extent, describes the situation insofar as last year's stakes stars are concerned. Twenty-five different horses won stakes at last year's stand, and 18 of them are currently on the grounds. Another two or three, including recent Santa Anita stakes winner Raise the Bluff, seem likely to make an appearance later in the meeting. Only a Classic Lady (retired) and Diamond Dollars (deceased) are certain not to be seen.

Chief among the returnees is Flamethrowintexan, who was named horse of the meeting at last year's meet after winning both the Mt. Rainier Handicap and the Grade 3 Longacres Mile for trainer Jim Penney. Flamethrowintexan raced three more times after the local meet ended, finishing fifth in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, winning the Grade 3 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Handicap, and finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in December before being given the rest of the winter off.

Nobody knows the 6-year-old Flamethrowintexan better than Penney's son-in-law Bryson Cooper, who picked him out to claim for owner Paul Heist three years ago and served as his regular exercise and workout rider until he underwent knee replacement surgery a couple of months ago. Cooper provided an update on the champ's status.

"He worked three furlongs twice, then he worked a half-mile in 47.40 last Friday," Cooper reported. "He is doing really well. He seems every bit as strong as he ever was, but he is obviously a few weeks away from running, and we don't have a race picked out for him. We'll just have to let Schoolin You and Livinonlovanadime carry the load until he is ready."

Schoolin You and Livinonlovanadime, both 4-year-olds who race for the partnership of Michael and Amy Feuerborn and John and Nanene Maryanski, are on the comeback trail. Schoolin You missed all of last year with a foot problem after winning both the WTBA Lads and the Gottstein Futurity here as a juvenile, while Livinonlovanadime was sidelined by sore shins after winning last July's Tacoma Handicap.

"They have been working together all spring, and they are both ready to race," said Cooper. "We considered running both of them in the 5 1/2-furlong feature on opening day, but in the end we decided that Schoolin You needs more ground. Livinonlovanadime is the better sprinter, so he'll go on opening day and we expect him to run very well."

Blackies Cuttie making comeback

Another who will be coming back from an injury on opening day is Blackies Cuttie, who will go in a 5 1/2-furlong optional claiming race for 3-year-old fillies that is billed as the card's co-feature.

Blackies Cuttie, an Oregon-bred daughter of Cascadian from the barn of trainer Ben Root, was extremely impressive in winning both of her starts here last season as a juvenile, but she was upset at 1-10 in the Janet Wineberg Stakes at Portland Meadows in early November.

"She cracked a cannon bone in that race," reported Root. "It was a hairline fracture, but we gave her almost four months off to make sure it was healed completely. She has come around quickly since we put her back into training, and she has worked five furlongs twice. I wish I had one more work into her, but that's what I thought before both of her wins here last season, so maybe she'll be all right. The goal is to have her at her peak for the first stakes, and this race should help a lot."

Blackies Cuttie, like most of the others in Friday's co-feature, is prepping for the $45,000 U.S. Bank Stakes at six furlongs on May 12.

Visa backlog affects backstretch

Trainers who have been prepping horses locally since the track opened for training on the first of February have been handicapped by a severe shortage of grooms, as many of the Mexican nationals who normally fill the groom slots have been unable to obtain work visas.

"There are a lot of new regulations, and the result is that there is just a tremendous amount of paperwork for people trying to get work visas," explained Frank MacDonald, president of the Washington division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

"They have to get approvals from the Mexican consulate, the federal government, and the state of Washington, and there are backlogs everywhere. I understand the need for homeland security, but we've got to find a way to streamline this process."

Many trainers have been forced to scramble to find the help needed to clean stalls and care for horses.

"I'm really in pretty good shape now, but help was pretty scarce when I first brought my horses in," said trainer Tom Wenzel. "Fortunately, I knew enough people in the industry to get a crew together. At one point I had three former trainers working for me, plus my dad came in to do stalls, and my wife was here helping out on weekends. It was kind of hectic, but we got through it."

Educational TV

Fans who have not yet seen the track's excellent "Pre-season Pass" series can still do so on Comcast's "On Demand" service as well as on YouTube.

The series, which is hosted by Emerald's indefatigable Joe Withee, consists of 11 episodes previewing the meeting, and each episode contains an educational segment on some aspect of racing. Those segments include sessions with assistant trainer Kay Cooper on tack, rider Gallyn Mitchell on riding technique, groom Brian Mayfield on feeding, and identifier Vern Baze on tattooing horses.