01/01/2010 12:00AM

Stidham risks Gran Estreno for tag

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NEW ORLEANS - It has been a dream ride for the connections of Gran Estreno since they claimed him for $20,000 at Arlington Park in May. Trainer Mike Stidham and Gran Estreno have partnered for 4 wins and 1 third from 6 starts, including a victory in the Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington last September.

The partnership could come to an end on Sunday, as Gran Estreno is entered for a tag in a third-level optional $62,500 claimer at 1 1/16 miles on turf at Fair Grounds.

"He's been one of those once-in-a-long-time claims," said Stidham. "These don't come around very often."

Gran Estreno has been off since Oct. 30, when he hung on to finish third, 1 1/4 lengths back, in an optional claimer at Keeneland. Stidham considered the effort a step up off his previous race, when Gran Estreno had failed to fire and finished seventh in the Durham Cup at Woodbine.

"I thought he ran a pretty game effort against some accomplished horses in his last one," said Stidham. "As for the race at Woodbine, we don't have an explanation."

Both the distance and the surface on Sunday look to suit Gran Estreno, who has 3 victories from 4 starts at 1o1/16 miles over turf.

Though Gran Estreno, 7, is eligible to be claimed, Stidham said he has not lost confidence in him.

"He's training well," said Stidham. "It's just the condition. There's a fine line between these high-priced claiming races and stakes level."

As if to prove Stidham's point, several others entered in Sunday's race bring resumes that include stakes victories.

All of Unreachable Star's stakes victories have come against fellow Indiana-breds, but two races ago he dominated in an optional $80,000 claimer against open company at Churchill Downs. In that race, he dueled for the early lead before putting the field away, drawing off to win by eight lengths.

He returns only two weeks after losing by more than 17 lengths in the Tenacious Handicap, a race in which he displaced his soft palate.

Also entered is Mad Flatter, who has done his best racing at Fair Grounds, finishing third two years ago in the Grade 3 LeComte. He has struggled since then, winning only once from four starts.

Trainer Jeffrey Thornbury hasn't given up on him, however, and Mad Flatter raced evenly in his last race, finishing third on Dec. 4 in a race that was moved off the Fair Grounds turf.