10/05/2006 12:00AM

Surface play: Level Playingfield


Level Playingfield doesn't bring the top speed figures into Saturday's Grade 3, $250,000 Phoenix Breeders' Cup at Keeneland, nor does he have even a fraction of the early speed of some of his 10 opponents. What he does have is an affinity for Polytrack, having won back-to-back runnings of the Marfa Stakes over the Polytrack strip at Turfway Park.

Matched against the likes of Silver Wagon, Coach Jimi Lee, Areyoutalkintome, and Spanish Chestnut in the Phoenix, a six-furlong race, Level Playingfield will need every break he can get.

"We figured we'd take a shot," said trainer Bob Holthus. "He is facing a tough group, but he does like (the Polytrack), and maybe some of the others won't."

The inexperience of so many of the starters over the Polytrack makes the race difficult to handicap. Only three other entrants - Elusive Jazz, Vicarage, and Caller One - have raced over Polytrack, and none of the three managed better than a fourth over it.

Level Playingfield is much more of a known commodity over Polytrack - not that he needs Polytrack to perform well. A nine-time winner with earnings of over $597,000, he won the 2004 Kentucky Cup Sprint over the old Turfway dirt surface, and earlier this year he was third in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap on Kentucky Derby day.

Level Playingfield prefers to come from off the pace. He will be ridden Saturday by John McKee, the regular rider for Holthus.

Despite lacking Polytrack experience, Silver Wagon looms the favorite in the Phoenix. Fourth behind Pomeroy in the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga Sept. 2, he has extensive experience racing in top-class company. He won the Grade 1 Hopeful as a juvenile in 2003 and has run some of his best races in defeat, such as when he was second to Ghostzapper in the 2005 Met Mile and a close fourth behind Taste of Paradise in last year's Vosburgh.

Garrett Gomez rides for trainer Rick Dutrow.

As well as Silver Wagon has performed, he does not own the highest Beyer Speed Figures in the race. His career-best is a 110, which he earned in the 2005 Met Mile, and he has not earned a Beyer above 101 in his last six starts. Those numbers are narrowly below those of Coach Jimi Lee, a crack sprinter who has raced mostly in Iowa and Illinois and has never won a graded stakes race. His career-best Beyer is a 112, which he earned in the Iowa Sprint Handicap in 2004, and he has earned Beyers between 102 and 106 in his last four starts, three of which resulted in wins.