01/05/2007 1:00AM

Stakes muddle championship picture

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The battle to determine the top Maryland-bred 2-year-olds came down to the wire - literally - at Laurel Park on Dec. 30 with thrilling runnings of the Maryland Juvenile and Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship Stakes, two races that historically have factored heavily in year-end honors.

The favored Roaring Lion won the one-mile Maryland Juvenile Championship, but it wasn't easy. After taking charge early, Roaring Lion was headed by Digger in midstretch, regained the lead, then held off the fast-closing maiden Bianchi's Boy to win by a neck.

The Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship, also contested at one mile, saw odds-on favorite Spectacular Malibu look a certain winner coming down the stretch, but she was collared by Welcome Inn a sixteenth of a mile from home. The two dueled to the wire, with Welcome Inn getting her neck in front when it mattered most.

Each race proved the mettle of the top finishers, and made the decisions for voters for the Maryland-bred champions much more complicated.

Clifton Park, the 2-year-old division leader among colts and gelding going into the final weekend, was a no-show, and according to his Fair Hill-based trainer Bruce Jackson is now in Florida with trainer Richard Violette preparing to face open company at Gulfstream Park. Clifton Park won the Maryland Million Nursery in October in his last start and remains the division's leading earner with $103,450 from three starts.

In Clifton Park's absence, a field of five assembled for the Maryland Juvenile Championship to try to make their case for top honors. The evenly-matched group saw three go off at less than 3-1 odds, with Roaring Lion the favorite at 7-5.

A son of Northview Stallion Station's Lion Hearted making his stakes debut, Roaring Lion came into the race having won his two most recent starts - a maiden special on Nov. 29 and an allowance on Dec. 20 - both run at one mile at Laurel. Roaring Lion completed his season by winning or placing in all five of his starts and amassing $91,040 for his breeders, Binnie and Eddie Houghton of Buckingham Farm. Roaring Lion is the sixth foal and first stakes winner out of the stakes-winning Horatius mare Smartly.

Spectacular Malibu, the richest Maryland-bred 2-year-old of 2006, was expected to enhance her reputation in the Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship. And although she didn't win, the graded-stakes-placed filly was tough in defeat, and is still the favorite to claim a championship. She hasn't finished worse than second in four starts and has earned $122,490.

Welcome Inn, a homebred for Richard Golden's Sycamore Hall Farm, had been gaining experience all season, and came into the stakes with a record of 2 wins, 2 seconds and 2 thirds from 7 starts - her only finish worse than third a fourth in her debut in June.

Making her first start at a distance beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, Welcome Inn ground out her victory in the Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship and boosted her earnings to $121,100. In her previous start, Welcome Inn just missed in the restricted Donna Freyer Stakes at Philadelphia Park.

Welcome Inn, a daughter of Orientate, is the second stakes winner for her dam, Inny River (by Seattle Slew). Welcome Inn's half-brother Montgomery's Arch, who was sold by Golden as a yearling in 2003, was one of England's top juveniles in 2004 after taking the Group 2 Richmond Stakes and finishing third to champion Shamardal in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes.

Two juveniles who didn't appear in the Championship races, but bear watching at 3, are the gelding Heart Throbbin' and the filly Down.

Heart Throbbin' (Formal Gold-She Whistled, by Two Punch), bred by Thomas Bowman and his wife, Chris, and trainer Richard W. Small, made nine starts in 2006, finishing third or better seven times, was second in the Port Penn Stakes at Laurel and earned $69,300. Trainer King T. Leatherbury, who claimed Heart Throbbin' for $40,000 in September, elected to keep Heart Throbbin' sprinting, and started him in the Dancing Count Stakes on Jan. 1 - which Heart Throbbin' duly won.

Down (Mr. Greeley-Up We Go, by Waquoit), bred by the late Allaire duPont and now owned by Michael Bello, was ambitiously placed by trainer Bobby Frankel in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet Stakes on Dec. 17 off one start - a nose loss when second in a maiden special weight at Belmont Park in October. Down was sent off as second choice among the 12 runners for the Hollywood Starlet, and rallied from last to finish third, 1 1/2 lengths behind winner Romance Is Diane.