04/28/2009 11:00PM

Starbird Road set for return


AUBURN, Wash. - Starbird Road is back and will try this summer to make his case as one of the great sprinters in Northwest racing history. But to prevail Sunday in the $30,000 Seattle Handicap at Emerald Downs, Starbird Road will have to overcome a 23-month sabbatical and a stellar group of older horses that has done just fine without him.

A sensation in 2006, when he ran six furlongs in a track-record 1:07.40, Starbird Road suffered ligament damage in his front left leg in May 2007 and hasn't been seen since. His treatment included a procedure in which stem cells were removed from his hip and sent to a lab. The healthy cells then were inserted into the injury to promote healing and tissue regeneration. So far, so good. Starbird Road returned to good health last summer and has been training forwardly for his 2009 debut.

"He could have gone back into training last August, but we didn't want to send him to California," trainer Larry Ross said Tuesday. "So he's had plenty of time to heal. He worked Sunday in a minute flat and he looked great doing it. The week before, he worked six furlongs in 10-and-2. He went really well."

Starbird Road's owner, Rick Beal, said stem-cell therapy offers few guarantees. Beal said he tried the procedure with two other horses, including a filly who never returned to full-time training. The other was Snark, a 5-year-old gelding who ran third in a $12,500 claimer on Sunday after 22 months on the sideline. Now, it's Starbird Road's turn.

"It's one of those things," Beal said of his 8-year-old gelding. "You don't know if he has one race or five races. He could string out half a dozen. We'll have to see."

Starbird Road has won 10 of 19 starts, including four stakes wins at Emerald Downs. Unless a wet track precipitates a scratch Sunday, Starbird Road will try to become the first horse to capture the Seattle Handicap three times. He won the six-furlong race in 2006 and 2007, both times tracking fast fractions before surging to the front in midstretch. It's a running style that could serve him well in the Grade 3, $300,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 16, though Starbird Road has never gone farther than 6 1/2 furlongs in his 19-race career. Plans to run in the 2006 Mile were scuttled when he suffered a minor ankle injury a week before the race.

"It would be fun for him to get to the Mile and be running good," Ross said.

But can he get the distance?

"Well, he's never gone two turns, so we don't know, but I would think he could get it," Ross said. "Most horses can get a mile - it's kind of an extended sprint."

Burney lights up the board

One of the new faces in the Emerald Downs jockey colony is Robert Burney, a 22-year-old former rodeo rider from Idaho. Burney rode his first winner at Emerald on Sunday, booting Best Indy West to a $66 upset in the fourth race for owner/trainer Eulia Bischoff.

A relative neophyte in the racing game, Burney began his pursuit of a riding career in 2007, two years after suffering a broken back in a rodeo mishap. He credits former Northwest riders Vince Ward and Dan Bryson for showing him the ropes. Practicing atop a barrel, Burney learned the nuances of balance, the art of hand-riding, and how to handle a stick. He won with his first mount, at Pocatello, Idaho, last May 7 and rode 18 winners over the winter at Portland Meadows.

"I had a really good horse," he said of his debut winner on the Idaho fair circuit. "I went wide all the way around. I looked like crap, but it was fun."

Burney could become popular with Emerald handicappers, if his horses continue to outrun their odds. He rode Detour Sign to a $99.20 stunner March 24 at Portland, got Best Indy West home on top at 32-1, and finished third aboard 24-1 shot Harmony's Pipsqeek on Saturday. He had nine mounts through the first six racing days, all longshots with average odds of 21-1. Only one of the nine finished worse than fifth, and that one set the pace before faltering.

Veteran agent Ken Greene is handling Burney's book. With the average field size at only 7.48 horses through the first two weeks, they face some daunting hurdles getting mounts. After the top several riders get their calls, there's not much left for an inexperienced newcomer. But trainers are starting to take notice.

"Horses seem to run for him," said Larry Wolf, whose Candyman Slew ran second Sunday in the race won by Best Indy West. "He'll come right through on the inside, which I found out the other day when he out-rode me. He's a really nice kid who's willing to learn. Hopefully, he'll get some shots to do some good."