06/16/2003 11:00PM

Stepping-stone to the Swaps

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Chief Planner and Bullistic represent 3-year-olds at the opposite end of the probables list for Sunday's $100,000 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park. One is proven to be a top 3-year-old, and the other needs a big race on Sunday to earn a spot in that category.

Chief Planner was an accomplished 2-year-old, placing in three stakes, but was sidelined by injury last winter and did not start in the Triple Crown. Trained by Bob Baffert, Chief Planner returned to top form with a seven-length win in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes for California-breds on April 26.

Bullistic did not start until March, too late to be a factor in the Triple Crown. He won a maiden race over 1 1/16 miles by 7 1/2 lengths April 6, but returned and finished a troubled sixth in a June 4 allowance race.

With a win or close finish in the Affirmed, the colts can earn spots in the $400,000 Swaps Stakes on July 13.

On Tuesday at Santa Anita, Chief Planner worked five furlongs in 59.40 seconds. Typical of a work by a Baffert horse, it was fast, the second-best of 37 at the distance.

In the 1 1/16-mile Affirmed, Chief Planner shares top weight of 119 pounds with Eye of the Tiger and Outta Here, who finished fifth and ninth in the Kentucky Derby. The other probables are Blazonry, winner of the Laz Barrera Stakes on May 26, and Ministers Wild Cat, who won the Golden State Mile at Golden Gate Fields in February.

Ministers Wild Cat worked six furlongs in 1:13.20, the fastest of 10 works at the distance. Trained by Neil Drysdale, Ministers Wild Cat finished a troubled fifth in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19. He was scratched from the Barrera because of a foot bruise.

Chief Planner may go favored. Baffert considers the Affirmed a pivotal race that could lead to starts in important August races.

"Hopefully, this will set him up for the Swaps and we can decide what to do," Baffert said. "You've got the Pacific Classic and the Haskell, but we don't know what we'll do."

Bullistic will have a new rider - Patrick Valenzuela - and additional equipment - blinkers on - in the Affirmed. He was ridden by Mike Smith in the recent allowance race, but Smith is booked to ride Blazonry in the Affirmed.

On Tuesday at Hollywood Park, Bullistic worked five furlongs in 59.20 seconds, the fastest of 16 works at the distance.

"He worked with blinkers and he got into his work a lot better," trainer John Shirreffs said.

In the allowance race on June 4, Bullistic ran erratically. He was second on the backstretch, with Smith hitting him a few times to keep his attention. Bullistic was third at the eighth pole and tried to go between horses in the final furlong, but he could not get through. He finished 3 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Ender's Shadow.

"When he tried to go through the last time, he got shut off and Mike stood up," Shirreffs said. "Mike said at any time he could have won the race, but that he ran too spotty."

Azeri goes for 10 in row

The Affirmed is one of two graded stakes at Hollywood Park this weekend. On Saturday, Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, will attempt to win her 10th consecutive race in the $250,000 Vanity Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on the main track.

Azeri will be part of a short field expected to include American Czarina, Bare Necessities, Keys to the Heart, Sister Girl Blues, and Tropical Blossom. Enjoy may be entered, but her primary goal is the Molly Pitcher Handicap at Monmouth Park June 28, trainer Beau Greely said.

Azeri carries top weight of 127 pounds. Bare Necessities is next on the weights list with 118. A 4-year-old trained by Wally Dollase, she is trying to win her fourth consecutive stakes but first Grade 1.

On Tuesday, Bare Necessities breezed a half-mile in 50 seconds.

Sunset next for Continental Red

Continental Red, the 2002 California-bred horse of the year, who ended a three-race losing streak in Sunday's Quicken Tree Stakes for statebreds, will return in the $150,000 Sunset Handicap on July 20.

Both the Quicken Tree and the Sunset are run over 1 1/2 miles on turf. Last year, Continental Red finished second in the Sunset.

The 7-year-old Continental Red was well-beaten in his first three starts of 2003, finishing eighth in the Sunshine Millions Classic on dirt at Gulfstream Park, fifth in the San Luis Obispo Handicap on turf at Santa Anita, and sixth on turf in the Jim Murray Handicap.

In the Quicken Tree, Continental Red ran close to the pace and overtook pacesetter Lily's Lad in early stretch.

"I think the horse might have gotten his confidence back," trainer Ian Jory said. "It gave it back to me. That was a race he should have won. I was very impressed with the way he ran."

Santa Catarina headed to Saratoga

Santa Catarina, who won her first stakes in the Grade 2 Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks last Saturday, is being pointed for the $750,000 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga Aug. 16, Baffert said.

Santa Catarina's win in the Hollywood Oaks marked her sixth appearance in a stakes. She finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last October and second in the Kentucky Oaks last month.

"I was wondering when she would uncork one of those races," Baffert said. "We're getting her style down, and we've gotten her to relax."

General Challenge zips four furlongs

General Challenge, the winner of the 2000 Santa Anita Handicap but winless in two starts this year, had the fastest of 31 recorded works over a half-mile at Santa Anita on Tuesday.

The 7-year-old General Challenge was timed in 46.60 seconds. At this meet, General Challenge finished last of nine in the Tiznow Stakes April 26 and fifth in a field of six in an allowance race on June 7. They are his only starts since being sidelined by a tendon injury in the summer of 2000.

"When you've been laying on the couch for three years, it's hard to get back at it," Baffert said. "Now, I'm waiting for him to uncork one. I think those two races have done him well."