07/08/2001 11:00PM

Swaps in shadow of last year

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The $500,000 Swaps Stakes has a tough act to follow on Sunday at Hollywood Park.

Last year's first two finishers - Captain Steve and Tiznow - have played a defining role in the handicap division in the last year. Tiznow went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and be named Horse of the Year. Captain Steve won the $6 million Dubai World Cup last March.

This year's probable field of seven does not appear as strong, but some are just at the start of their careers. The established star, Congaree, the winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes who was third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, will be the favorite in his California stakes debut.

Trained by Bob Baffert for Stonerside Stable, Congaree was only the winner of a maiden race and an allowance race when he left Baffert's base at Santa Anita for the Wood Memorial in April. He returned as one of the top 3-year-olds of this year.

"Congaree is doing great," Baffert said. "He is so fast. You've got to let him roll."

Baffert's concern in the Swaps is the potential for a speed duel that would bother Congaree. Speedy Pick, a maiden winner on June 15, has shown speed as has Hoovergetthekeys, who finished second in the Ascot Handicap on turf. Both will be longshots.

Congaree, who will be ridden for the first time by Gary Stevens, has displayed the ability to stalk the lead, which he did in the Wood.

Other Swaps probables include Until Sundown, Top Hit, and Bayou the Moon, the first three finishers of the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap on June 17; and Jamaican Rum, who finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby but lost two stakes in June.

Meet drawing down

The Swaps is one of seven stakes run on the final weekend of the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, which ends on Monday.

Blueprint, who won the San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita in March, is the likely favorite in Sunday's $200,000 Sunset Handicap over 1 1/2 miles on turf. He will be opposed by Kudos, Loving, Timboroa.

Also on Sunday, Expected Program will try for his third consecutive stakes win in the $100,000 Hollywood Juvenile Championship. The six-furlong Juvenile will be his toughest test, coming against recent maiden winners Came Home, Sleeping Weapon and Tim's Talent, who will be making their stakes debuts.

Oaks loses starter

Saturday's $150,000 Hollywood Oaks will have a small field. Starrer, who would have been favored in the Oaks, will instead start in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park on July 21.

Without her, Affluent, who was third behind Starrer in the Princess Stakes, will face Collect Call, who was third in the Kentucky Oaks. There were only seven nominees, leaving the chance of a field with three or four runners.

Love at Noon, the track record holder at Churchill Downs for 6 1/2 furlongs who was second in the Princess, will miss the Oaks. She has been turned out with a "crack in a splint bone," Baffert said.

Essence of Dubai a good-looking winner

Essence of Dubai, a $2.3 million yearling purchase at Keeneland last September, ran an impressive race in his debut on Sunday, winning a six-furlong maiden race by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:10.24.

Trained by Eoin Harty for Godolphin Racing, Essence of Dubai was fourth on the turn and caught Timely Action in the final furlong. By Pulpit, Essence of Dubai is out of Epitome, the winner of the 1987 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Hollywood Park.

Owned by the Maktoum family's Godolphin racing, Essence of Dubai returned $2.60 as part of an entry with Future Minister, a $1.3 million yearling purchase, who finished third.

Harty has won three races at this meeting. Last year, his first directing Godolphin's American 2-year-olds, he did not have a winner until Del Mar.

Essence of Dubai may return in the $150,000 Best Pal Stakes on Aug. 15, the first graded stakes for 2-year-olds at Del Mar.

Point Given works a half in 47.60

Point Given on Saturday worked for the first time since winning the Belmont Stakes, going a half-mile in 47.60 seconds at Santa Anita. The winner of the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness Stakes earlier this year, Point Given remains a candidate for the Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park on Aug. 5, a race that could have a $1.5 million purse if he starts.

"He just cruised around there," Baffert said of the work. "He was by himself. I didn't have anything to work with him. He's a loafer by himself.

"He was blowing when he came back. The track has been a little slow. We'll let him tell us when he's ready to go."

Burke elected TOBA chair

Gary Burke, a horse owner since 1983, was elected chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California at the organization's board meeting at Hollywood Park on July 5.

Burke, 61, replaces Bob Lewis, who stepped down as chairman but remains a member of the board. Burke has been a member of the TOC board since it was formed in 1995. As a horse owner, he has owned such stakes winners as Apreciada, Comininalittlehot, and Emailit.

The TOC elected Tom Bachman, Marvin Malmuth and Jack Owens were elected vice-presidents and Donna Arnold as treasurer.

Lord Sterling starts long comeback road

Lord Sterling, who won the Joseph Grace Handicap last summer at the Sonoma County Fair, has resumed light training seven months after injuring a sesamoid in a third-place finish in the Japan Cup Dirt.

Lord Sterling is tack walking for trainer Alfredo Marquez. He is not expected back until the fall, at the earliest.

"He's a long way off," Marquez said. "I'll tack walk him for a few more weeks."

While he was off, Lord Sterling had chips removed from both ankles, Marquez said. It is likely a year that he will have missed a year if he returns.

"It will take at least a year, but we'll give him all the time off he needs," Marquez said. "Very few come back from this."