05/04/2007 12:00AM

Starbird Road faces higher expectations

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AUBURN, Wash. - If it were up to trainer Sharon Ross, she would be bringing Starbird Road into Sunday's six-furlong Seattle Handicap as an unheralded hopeful.

"I prefer to fly under the radar," she said. "That way there aren't a lot of expectations, and nobody is disappointed."

But Starbird Road's days of flying under the radar are long gone. Starbird Road, owned by Rick Beal, won 5 of his 6 starts last season at Emerald Downs, including three stakes, and set a track record going six furlongs in 1:07.40 in the Chinook Pass Handicap.

"It was a lot of fun," said Ross. "Everything came together for him last year. He had a lot of problems early in his career and he missed his whole 3-year-old season, so he was just learning as a 4-year-old. Last year at 5 he was a mature, seasoned horse and he really hit his stride. Now we just have to keep him going."

Keeping horses going has been the hallmark of Ross's training career. The lion's share of Ross's 22 stakes wins at Emerald Downs have come with older horses. How old? Moonlight Meeting won stakes here at 7, and Crowning Meeting was 8 when he won a pair of stakes here in 2002. Military Hawk, the state's leading money winner with earnings of $686,128 from 18 wins in 86 starts, won stakes at ages 2 through 8 and won the final start of his career as a 10-year-old in 1997, beating $40,000 claimers under Gary Stevens.

"The key to it is being able to turn them out every winter, and Rick has let us do that with Starbird Road," said Ross. "As a result he is still lightly raced for a 6-year-old, and he seems to be as good as ever. If anything, he is feistier this year. Now he thinks he knows everything, and what he knows most is that he wants to go fast. He is a fun horse to train, though, and he has always had a good attitude. Even when he had problems as a 2-year-old, he never held back. He's not a weenie."

Ross hopes that Starbird Road can duplicate last season's campaign, with one exception. He missed a scheduled start in last year's Grade 3 Longacres Mile after banging a pastern on the gate, and as a result he has never attempted a distance beyond 6 1/2 furlongs.

"I'd like to test him at a mile this year, but I'd really like to test him in an allowance race," said the trainer. "We have to get through this race on Sunday first, though, and then there are two more sprint stakes we'd like to run him in. Ideally, we'll get an allowance race for him at a mile after that, and that will tell us whether we should be pointing him to the Longacres Mile."

The Great Face wheels back fast

The bounce theory holds that horses have a tendency to regress after a career-best effort. That tendency increases when the career-best effort comes after a significant layoff, and it increases further when the horse comes back quickly to race again.

That pretty much describes The Great Face, who came off a layoff of nearly 11 months to equal the North American dirt record for 5 1/2 furlongs when he won the opening night feature in 1:01.20. The Great Face, a 5-year-old son of Cahill Road, will be returning in just two weeks when he contests Sunday's $45,000 Seattle Handicap.

Trainer Tom Wenzel, an astute handicapper, is very much aware of the bounce theory, but he hopes it will not apply on Sunday.

"I'm concerned about bringing him back so quickly, but the fact of the matter is that he is a tough horse and he seems to have come out of his last race very well," said Wenzel. "I haven't worked him since he ran, though, and that was by design. I thought my best chance to get him to run back to his last race would be to take it easy on him. I know he got a lot out of his last race, so he didn't really need a workout. I'm trying to bring him into this race as fresh as possible."

Sprinting not Poker Brad's game

Poker Brad is one of several high-profile handicap runners - Flamethrowintexan and R. Associate are two more - who are skipping the meeting's initial sprint stakes. Trainer Tim McCanna said he will likely skip the rest of the sprint stakes on the schedule as well.

"There is really no sense sprinting him, because he has never been a sprinter," said McCanna. "I'll look for a mile allowance race for him before the first route stakes. He'll get more out of a mile race, anyway, and he'll have a better chance to be competitive."

Poker Brad, 9, a multiple route stakes winner of more than $425,000, has not raced since finishing second to Flamethrowintexan in the 2005 Mt. Rainier Handicap. He was given all of last year off to recuperate from the wear and tear of six campaigns.

"I just thought it was the right thing to do, and he seems to have responded to the vacation," said McCanna. "He worked five furlongs in 57.40 on opening day, and he came back to work another five furlongs in 59.60 last Saturday. He still wants to go out there and run."