04/03/2008 11:00PM

Three reasons to press on

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PHOENIX - You probably need a break after a huge racing Saturday. Go ahead. Put your feet up, take a deep breath.

Okay, the break is over. That's because there are still opportunities at Santa Anita on Sunday. There may not be the marquee names that ran on Saturday, but they don't ask you for that when you take a ticket back to the window. Here are three Santa Anita entrants that might help your Sunday be a good one.

Hennessy Rose (race 2): She comes with one of my favorite angles. When a sharp barn gives a sharp horse a multiple-level class hike, I always take that as a big thumbs up. Well, that's what happens here. The 5-year-old mare was freshened three months, dropped from allowance ranks to the $12,500 claiming level at Santa Anita on Marcho10, and she responded with a big win. Now trainer Ruben Cardenas nearly doubles her in value. That's an encouraging sign. It means she has to face tougher, but it also means her connections feel good about her, and they are saying that if someone wants to claim her, they're going to have to pay.

And she's no stranger to tough opposition. She beat starter allowance foes on this track last fall. It also bodes well that she has a bullet 46-second work at Santa Anita March 25 in preparation for this. Coincidentally, she had a bullet work prior to that March 10 win. Up the ladder.

Courtly Couture (race 6): A lot changed for this filly at Santa Anita on Feb. 27. She was coming back after four months on the bench, was trying turf for the first time, plus a route for the first time, and with blinkers added for the first time. She chased the pace and then battled on the lead from the far turn to the wire to finish second, losing by a neck. It was a breakout performance, and this Beau Greely filly appears to have found her niche.

She worked slowly at Hollywood March 29 (five furlongs in 1:05.60, the slowest of 53 works at the distance that day), but she had shown speed in her prior work, going a fast five furlongs in 59.80 at Hollywood March 23.

Lightmyfirebaby (race 8): She beat a number of these in the Irish O'Brien on March 17. That was sprinting on turf; she's routing on the grass Sunday. But she actually might be better stretching out. She's a proven commodity at this trip, and her solid five-furlong work since last out shows she retains her edge.

Trainer Barry Abrams has had a strong meet (21 percent winners), and rider Chantal Sutherland has been a major component of his success. She's getting ready to return to her primary base at Woodbine, but she and Abrams are a red-hot 7 for their last 19 together (37 percent).

Big Brown and Curlin

Big Brown is good, really good. In fact, he may be the most talented in his crop. But the similarities between him and Curlin are eerie. Both went into the Kentucky Derby undefeated and unchallenged in three starts. Both, oddly enough, won those three races by nearly identical margins (Big Brown by a combined 29 lengths, Curlin by a combined 28 1/2). It's not hard to believe that by year's end, Big Brown will make like Curlin and be the alpha of his class.

But, like Curlin, will Big Brown also find the Derby assignment a bit too much too soon?

A synthetic red herring

I don't understand all the angst over the Southern California Derby hopefuls who have raced almost exclusively on synthetic surfaces. With many a Derby runner there's no way to tell how he or she will perform when they get to Churchill's dirt.

Well, that's always been the case, synthetic or no, hasn't it? After all, we never knew how horses coming from the old dirt in Southern California or dirt of Arkansas or dirt of Louisiana or dirt of Gulfstream or dirt of New York or old dirt of Keeneland was going to handle the Churchill surface. What makes the synthetic concern any more significant?

Go back a year and you will see that good work on synthetic surfaces did not keep Street Sense and Hard Spun from success on the Triple Crown trail. The bottom line is, a good horse can run on anything.

If the California horses do not perform in the Derby, it won't be because of the dirt and synthetic issue; it will be because they're just not good enough.

* It's a small room with just a few occupants such as Spectacular Bid. But if things continue as they are, Curlin will have a place there. Of course, remember how quickly things can change - weren't we humming the same tune last year with Invasor? You saw how rapidly he went from superstar to retired.

* We knew how good Midnight Lute was last year and expected him to be a primary late-running sprint force this year. He has yet to race in 2008, but the way things are progressing, Benny the Bull might inherit that role. He was good in 2007 and he is better now.