03/10/2006 12:00AM

Sweetnorthernsaint, unbeaten filly coming for Grade 3 stakes

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - With the New York Racing Association on Friday officially lifting its restrictions on Maryland shippers effective March 18, the path is cleared for that state's top 3-year-old male and female horses to race in a pair of Grade 3 stakes events at Aqueduct that day.

The connections of Sweetnorthernsaint, the talented gelding, and Celestial Legend, the undefeated filly, confirmed that their horses would ship to New York to run in the Gotham and Cicada, respectively.

Further, Michael Trombetta, the trainer of Sweetnorthernsaint, said Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, will ride Sweetnorthernsaint in the $200,000 Gotham.

"Just trying to align myself with a good rider," Trombetta said. "I had a lot of choices. There's been some real good riders to come through Maryland that we've had acquaintances with. He's been there and knows how to ride these kind."

Trombetta said he was relieved to know that his horse could race in the Gotham, which was the race he wanted to run in all along. But NYRA had placed a ban on all horses based at Maryland tracks due to the outbreak of equine herpesvirus in January. NYRA relaxed that ban on Friday, two days after the final four horses suspected of having the virus tested negative.

Trombetta had begun to make plans to ship to Florida for the Tampa Bay Derby in the event he couldn't run here.

"Even if you have options, it's a little difficult not knowing which way you're headed," Trombetta said. "That's the way we'd like to come. What weighs heaviest is location, and we've raced over the track."

Sweetnorthernsaint won a maiden race here by 7 3/4 lengths in January before taking the Miracle Wood Stakes by 10 at Laurel last month.

Meanwhile, Celestial Legend will put her 6-for-6 record on the line in the Grade 3, $100,000 Cicada at six furlongs. Celestial Legend has won four consecutive stakes, but this will be her graded-stakes debut.

"At this point it's time to get some graded black type with her," trainer Dale Capuano said.

Claim box has been busy

It has been a whirlwind winter at the claim box. With 10 more horses having been claimed on Friday, there have been 182 claims since Jan. 1. The total money spent has been $4,162,500.

Gary Contessa, the leading trainer at this meet, has led the way with 26 claims. He has lost 13 horses through the claim box.

"The purses have been redistributed such that it makes claiming worth the money," Contessa said. "You claim a horse for $14,000, the purse is $22,000. If you make a bad claim, you can run that horse back for $7,500 and you're going to get your money back. Twenty-two thousand for a $14,000 claimer - that makes the claiming game a good game to play, and everybody wants to play it now."

Claiming prices range from $7,500 to $75,000. There have been three horses at this meet claimed for $75,000, including Silver Flower. Dominick Schettino won a five-way shake for that horse.

"There were days when a guy claimed a $75,000 horse and people said 'Wow,' " Contessa said. "Now there are five-way shakes for $75,000. It just shows you how healthy the business is."

Bob Klesaris has claimed 11 horses this meet, including Prince Benjamin for $10,000 on Friday. Klesaris could run that horse back in 30 days at the same level for a $19,000 purse. If he wants to run him sooner, Klesaris would have to put him in for a claiming price of $12,500, or 25 percent higher than he claimed him for.

"A horse may not be worth a certain price, but they're worth claiming because you're basically leasing them for 30 to 60 days," Klesaris said. "You take a horse for [$10,000] and 30 days later you lose them for [$10,000] and win the purse, it's worth it.

"Owners are getting more active," Klesaris added. "Young horses you have to wait too long for. No question you get a better horse that way, but owners want instant action."

Ashland unlikely for Daytime Promise

Contessa has not lost any faith in the 3-year-old filly Daytime Promise following her third-place finish in the Busher Stakes here on Feb. 26. Still, Contessa said he would not point Daytime Promise to the Grade 1 Ashland on April 8 as he had once thought of doing.

Instead, Contessa plans to keep Daytime Promise in New York and run her in the Wayward Lass, a $60,000 overnight stakes here next Friday at one mile. Contessa hopes to use that as a prep for the Grade 2 Comely over the main track on April 15.

"I'm very worried about the speed factor in the Ashland," Contessa said. "She's a dead closer and Keeneland tends to favor speed, so I'm leaving that as an option, but I'm looking at the race here on the 24th, the Comely, and the Acorn. I've nominated to everything, so we could wind up anywhere."

Off her maiden and Busanda wins, Daytime Promise was made the 4-5 favorite in the Busher. Under Norberto Arroyo Jr., Daytime Promise was bottled up along the rail before finding running room in midstretch. Her late rally fell 1 3/4 lengths short of Regal Engagement, who upset the field at 8-1.

"She should have been unsaddled," Contessa said. "Arroyo tried to do the right thing, but to go to the inside in a field of seven or eight and be last on the rail, that's a lot to overcome on the inner track."

Espinoza taken to hospital

Jockey Jose Espinoza was taken to Jamaica Hospital to be evaluated for possible head and shoulder injuries after being thrown to the ground in a spill in Friday's fourth race.

Espinoza was aboard She's Swell, a 5-year-old first-time starter trained by Bruce Johnstone, who suffered a broken left leg approaching the five-sixteenths pole of a six-furlong maiden race. She's Swell had to be euthanized.

Espinoza was taken off the track on a stretcher, but was conscious. The spill comes two days after Espinoza was slapped with a 30-day suspension for aggressive careless riding during Sunday's sixth race. Espinoza appealed that suspension, and is riding until the appeal is heard.