07/17/2002 11:00PM

Title defenses at Ruidoso

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Quarter Horse racing's top-ranked 3-year-old, A Real Man, and its number-one juvenile, Zip First, put their rankings on the line this weekend in the Grade 1, $199,344 Rainbow Derby and the Grade 1, $635,470 Rainbow Futurity at Ruidoso Downs.

The 440-yard Rainbow Derby is Saturday afternoon and the 400-yard Rainbow Futurity is on Sunday. After winning only four of 12 starts (no stakes wins) last year as a 2-year-old, A Real Man, owned by Bill Price and trained by Eddie Willis, is now a major contender for the world champion title with five wins from five 2002 starts. Those victories include the Grade 1 Remington Park Derby and the Grade 1 Heritage Place Derby.

Larry Payne rode A Real Man to his Rainbow Derby trial win on July 4 with the sixth-fastest qualifying time of 21.557 seconds for the 440 yards.

In that trial, A Real Man defeated Tres Seis, who finished third in his 2002 debut and figures to be sharper in the finals.

Last year, Tres Seis was a championship contender with a win in the Grade 1 Golden State Futurity, a second in the Grade 1 All American Futurity, and a third in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Million.

Trainer John Bassett will saddle Tres Seis and fastest-qualifier Jump Jive an Wail, who was timed in 21.408 seconds for 440 yards. Grade 2 Ruidoso Derby winner Genuine Strawfly finished second in this trial and was one of five horses in the race to qualify for the finals.

Zip First, the number-one horse in the AQHA 2-year-old poll, is alive for the $4 million bonus that goes to the connections of any horse who can win the Ruidoso, Rainbow, and All American futurities. He won the Ruidoso Futurity by a nose on June 9.

Owned by Gary Hartstack and trained by Leon Bard, Zip First also won the Grade 2 Manor Downs Futurity and the Grade 2 Longhorn Futurity this spring.

Zip First is trying to rebound from a third-place trial finish behind First to Flash, one of three finalists trained by Bassett.

Bassett is also represented by Slew Ta Fame, the fastest qualifier in 19.543 seconds for the 400 yards, and One Corona for Me, who was sixth in the Grade 1 Heritage Place Futurity.

Babe Watcher in Vandy's Flash

Babe Watcher, coming off a troubled win in the Town Policy Handicap, goes for his fourth win in five starts in the Grade 3, $25,000 Vandy's Flash Handicap for 3-year-olds over 400 yards on Saturday night at Los Alamitos.

In the Town Policy, the Jaime Gomez-trained Babe Watcher was bumped but rallied to defeat El Primero del Ano Derby winner Harley Man and La Primera del Ano Derby winner Mini Rock.

Last winter, Babe Watcher won the Grade 2 Sunland Fall Futurity and was third in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Winter Derby after breaking through the gate and being reloaded.

Ed Burke Memorial Futurity winner Check Him Out, coming off a third-place finish in the El Primero Derby, will make his first start for Quarter Horse hall of fame trainer Blane Schvaneveldt. Schvaneveldt and John Andreini recently purchased D. Wayne and Laura Lukas's interest in Check Him Out, a Grade 1-winning son of Hennessy.