08/17/2006 11:00PM

Starbird Road bending the rules


AUBURN, Wash. - Shortly after Starbird Road notched his third win from four starts this year in the July 30 Governor's Handicap at Emerald Downs, the main sprint prep for Sunday's Grade 3 Longacres Mile, owner Rick Beal expressed reservations about running his stable star back in the Mile.

"There is a rule of thumb that you shouldn't ask a horse to do two new things at once," Beal said. "We would be asking Starbird Road to go long for the first time in his first race against graded stakes company. That might be asking too much."

Beal ultimately left the decision to trainer Sharon Ross, who decided to run Starbird Road in the Mile. Still, Ross said she shares some of Beal's concerns.

"It really is a lot to ask of a horse to go long for the first time against this kind of competition," she said. "I would have preferred to get a route into him before now, and I did enter him in a mile allowance race about a month ago. That race didn't fill, though, and the way his schedule worked out that was my only chance."

Ross said her concerns are not primarily about whether Starbird Road can last a mile. She said that both his sire, Count the Time, and his dam, Mia F. Eighteen, won over middle distances. She said she is more worried about the first quarter-mile than the last quarter-mile.

"He'll be racing into the first turn for the first time, and there is no way to school a horse to do that," she said. "If he gets hung wide, if he gets squeezed back, or if he just races green, he'll have no chance. A horse might recover from that kind of thing in an allowance race, but the competition is just too tough in the Longacres Mile. There is no room for mistakes."

But Ross said she feels she has two aces in the hole. One is rider Debbie Hoonan, who has ridden Starbird Road in his last 11 races, six of them wins. The other is Starbird Road's temperament.

"He is an old pro now," Ross said. "He is a mature 5-year-old with no bad habits. He is a perfect gentleman in the gate, he breaks sharp, and he will do whatever Debbie tells him to do. It's still not going to be easy for him to win the Longacres Mile in his first route, but if you were going to try it with any horse you would want a horse like him."

Grafton makes dirt debut in Mile

Starbird Road isn't the only horse who will be attempting something new in Sunday's Mile. Grafton, a 6-year-old son of Rahy, has faced graded stakes competition twice before, and has gone around two turns in 21 of his 24 career starts. What he has not done is to race on dirt.

Grafton was claimed by owner Tom Tollen out of a winning effort in a 1 1/16-mile turf race for $50,000 claimers at Hollywood Park on June 30. He then ran a close third against $80,000 company at Del Mar, again going 1 1/16 miles on turf, before being shipped to the barn of local trainer Bill Tollett to prepare for the Mile.

"The first thing I had to do was to see if he could handle our track," Tollett said. "All of his races had been on turf, and as far as I could tell all of his workouts were on turf, too."

Tollett has worked Grafton twice over the Emerald Downs surface, sending him a half-mile in a bullet 48.40 on Aug. 9, then bringing him back for a five-furlong drill in 1:01 on Tuesday.

"He handled the dirt like a million dollars both times, and he wasn't breathing hard enough to blow out a match when he came back," Tollett said. "I really couldn't be more pleased with the way he is doing."

Regardless of how he has worked, Grafton figures to be a longshot in his first try on the dirt.

"It's hard to be sure, but I think he should run well," Tollett said. "I think Southern Africa will be awfully tough if he runs his best race, and Flamethrowintexan is always tough. Hopefully, our horse can compete with the rest of them. If he gets a little lucky, he might even have a shot to win it all."

Mile right spot for Papi Chullo

The last horse to commit to Sunday's Mile was Papi Chullo, who arrived on Thursday along with fellow California shippers Southern Africa and Royal Place. Owner Greg Norman, who accompanied his colt, said until midweek he was still considering running Papi Chullo in Sunday's $1 million Pacific Classic.

"We were waiting for a major defection in the Pacific Classic," Norman said. "When Lava Man, Perfect Drift, and Magnum all completed their preparations in good shape, we decided to come here. We think he has the talent to compete with those horses, but he would be giving up a lot of experience at a mile and a quarter."

Norman said that Papi Chullo, a strapping gray son of Comeonmom, is thoroughly proven at middle distances. He collected his maiden win at Belmont going a mile, and defeated optional $62,500 company going 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood before running third to Giacomo in last month's San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. He was later disqualified and placed seventh in the San Diego.

Despite his accomplishments through his first nine starts, Norman said he feels the 4-year-old Papi Chullo is just hitting his stride.

"He hasn't fulfilled his potential yet," Norman said. "We have very high hopes for him."