04/23/2002 11:00PM

Table is set for Walden and WinStar


CICERO, Ill. - WinStar Farm and trainer Elliott Walden, have set themselves up for a big weekend at Sportsman's Park, and they will have no shortage of support from bettors. The WinStar-owned, Walden-trained First Again is certain to be favored in Saturday's National Jockey Club Oaks, and they might have the favorite again Sunday in the Sixty Sails Handicap, in the Grade 1 winner Pompeii, who makes her first start since a poor race in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

WinStar purchased both horses privately last year with one eye to racing and another, no doubt, to breeding. WinStar operates in both of these businesses, and stakes-winning mares are a major cog in such a venture.

According to Walden, WinStar purchased First Again last summer on the advice of speed-figure guru Jerry Brown, and the filly, by the little-known sire Outflanker, won the $100,000 Polly Drummond Stakes last fall at Delaware after finishing third in the Arlington-Wash-ington Lassie. This year, First Again has finished ninth in the OBS Championship at the Ocala Training Center and fourth at 83-1 in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland three weeks ago.

"I think she should be tough up there," Walden said Tuesday from Kentucky, referring to the NJC Oaks.

From the look of the seven-horse field drawn Tuesday for the $100,000 Oaks, Walden is on target. There are only two other stakes winners in the 1 1/16-mile Oaks, Elementary, who won the $40,000 Miss Mommy at Hawthorne last fall, and Gracility, who won an Illinois-bred stakes in her last start.

Pompeii, who will be ridden by Pat Day in the $300,000 Sixty Sails, is a much more proven commodity than First Again, having won the Grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga last summer. She was last after contesting a fast pace in the Breeders' Cup, and Walden is taking a wait-and-see approach to the Pompeii's upcoming campaign.

"The kind of race we're pointing her to now is to see where she fits in," said Walden. "She's come to hand here lately. She's put on quite a bit of weight since the Breeders' Cup. Pat Day worked her two works back, and she went really well."

If Pompeii brings back class to the Sixty Sails, her rivals bring in current form. No fewer than five of the probable starters won a stakes in their last start, and Quiet Lake won an allowance race by 9 1/4 lengths at Aqueduct on April 12.

Major Rhythm steps up

There are several decent races here Friday, not least of which is the seventh, which attracted a full and deep field of $25,000 claimers. Other good races are race six, an optional claiming route for 3-year-olds, and the eighth, a second-level Illinois-bred allowance.

The sixth will tell whether Major Rhythm, claimed out of an easy win April 6, can navigate the gulf between conditioned claiming and allowance company. Major Rhythm has beaten lesser horses than he faces Friday, but his three wins is tops in the seven-horse field and are two more than all but one of his rivals.

There are less accomplished horses that might be more talented. Our Sharky won his only start, rallying to win a mile race by a neck, and has breezed steadily for trainer Hugh Robertson in the six weeks since his race.

The eighth marks the return of Miss Spragg, racing for the first time since she went straight to the lead and won a first-level statebred allowance race by more than 12 lengths. That was Miss Spragg's first try around two turns, and it's safe to say she handles a route of ground.

What remains to be seen is whether she can handle pace pressure. Miss Spragg must outfoot two-turn stakes winner Explosive Action and likely pace factor My Fair Mary.