05/28/2004 11:00PM

Stay Forever closes fast to beat Sand Springs

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - South Florida invader Stay Forever launched a torrid late run down the center of the Churchill Downs turf course for a half-length victory Saturday over a game Sand Springs in the 28th running of the $168,300 .

With Calder's leading rider, Eddie Castro, aboard for trainer Marty Wolfson, Stay Forever was still last of nine with just five-sixteenths of a mile to go in the Grade 3 Mint Julep. "She really kicked," said Nicole Wiley, Wolfson's assistant. "The old lady came through."

Stay Forever, a 7-year-old mare by the Nijinsky II sire Stack, returned $12 as fourth choice after running 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.66 over a turf course rated firm. She now has earned just over $550,000, for breeder-owner Santa Cruz Ranch.

Two Dot Slew set a realistic early pace in the Mint Julep while Sand Springs raced just behind her. Turning for home, Sand Springs cut loose a big run and appeared on her way to victory, but Stay Forever's furious run nailed her. Eternal Melody, a New Zealand-bred filly making her U.S. debut, finished another neck back in third.

"It was a tough way to lose, but I was proud of the filly," said Mark Guidry, who rode Sand Springs. "She relaxed real nice, then gave me everything she had. She just got beat by a better horse today."

* A race earlier, Too Much Class ($3.60), ridden by Larry Melancon, gamely held off Silent Oath to win a $49,100 first-level allowance race for fillies and mares.

Pat Day's mount, Indygal, had to be euthanized after breaking down badly on the backstretch. Indygal, a 3-year-old A.P. Indy filly, was owned by Michael Paulson and trained by D. Wayne Lukas. Day escaped serious injury.