04/15/2004 11:00PM

Top four of 2003 meet in showdown


AUBURN, Wash. - The 2-year-old fillies at last year's Emerald Downs meeting never produced a definitive leader; four different fillies won the four stakes for the division.

All four - Sala de Oro, Crystal Mt. Stevie, Melba Jewel, and Americas Pride - have been entered in Sunday's $40,000 U.S. Bank Stakes at six furlongs, which now takes on the weight of a rubber match.

Sala de Oro, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Expelled, was named the meet's top juvenile filly last year, for winning three races, including the $75,000 Barbara Shinpoch Stakes at a mile. She then accompanied trainer Grant Forster to the Midwest, where she ran ninth in the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Lassie at Arlington Park in September and sixth in the $113,000 Jessamine County Stakes at Keeneland in October. She was then turned out for the winter.

"We hoped she would show more, but she was at the end of a long campaign, and she met a couple of very tough fields," said Forster's assistant, John Holmes. "Grant gave her a nice, long rest, then started bringing her back at the training center in Camden, South Carolina, which is where she trained before she came here last year."

Sala de Oro returned to Emerald Downs about 10 days ago, Holmes said. She prepped for the opening weekend stakes with a sharp work of five furlongs in 59.60 seconds under rider Ben Russell on Monday.

"She started off easy and finished strong, which was just what we were looking for," Holmes said. "She seems ready to go, and she looks really good to me."

Crystal Mt. Stevie in for a big season

Crystal Mt. Stevie raced only three times at 2, scoring her maiden victory in her second start and then leading throughout in the six-furlong Diane Kem Stakes at odds of 18-1 on Washington Cup Day, Sept. 21. It seemed that Crystal Mt. Stevie was just getting warmed up, but her trainer, Larry Smith, was adamant about turning her out for the entire winter.

"I want to have a good 3-year-old for next year," he said at that time.

If the way Crystal Mt. Stevie has been working is an indication, Smith got his wish. She has a long string of fast moves here this spring, including a half-mile drill in a phenomenal 45.20 on March 17.

"The best thing about her workouts is that we have never really asked her for speed," Smith said. "I think she is just faster this year. She gained about 150 pounds over the winter and she grew a full hand. She has really matured nicely. I'm glad I stopped on her when I did."

Smith makes no secret of his strategy for the U.S. Bank Stakes. Crystal Mt. Stevie, a daughter of Slewdledo, will go to the front and try to hold that position throughout the race.

"She doesn't like to be headed, but she will rate very easily on the front end," said Smith. "I know there is a lot of speed in this race, but I think anybody who tries to go with her early will be sorry they did."

Look for Melba Jewel late

Melba Jewel probably won't be among those who try to match strides with Crystal Mt. Stevie, despite the fact that she won the six-furlong Angie C. Stakes last year in wire-to-wire fashion. No sooner had she earned her first stakes win than trainer Frank Lucarelli began working on getting her to come from off the pace, and the tactic nearly worked when Melba Jewel closed to within a half-length of Crystal Mt. Stevie in the Diane Kem.

"I have her half-sister Marva Jean, and Marva Jean became a much better filly when we took her off the pace," Lucarelli said. "I think the same will probably be true of Melba Jewel in the long run."

That opinion is reflected in Melba Jewel's work tab, which shows a steady progression in distance up through April 8, when she worked six furlongs in 1:11.80. Instead of shortening her up for a fast blowout in her final prep on Wednesday, Lucarelli drilled her another six furlongs in 1:11.80.

"I'm more interested in slowing her down than speeding her up," said the trainer. "She is kind of high-test anyway, and I don't want to burn her out. If she breaks well on Sunday, I'm hoping she'll sit right behind the pack of speed and try to get by them in the stretch."

Vacation over for Americas Pride

Americas Pride is the most experienced member of Sunday's field, having raced 11 times as a 2-year-old. She was claimed by owners Dave Israel, Al Adams, and Jack Garrison out of her fifth start, a win over $16,000 company, then won the restricted Knights Choice Stakes at six furlongs. She confirmed her quality with a solid second behind Sala de Oro in the Barbara Shinpoch.

Sent to Portland Meadows, the Oregon-bred Americas Pride won the six-furlong Janet Wineberg Stakes in October by eight widening lengths. She then threw in two subpar races as the heavy favorite in November and December, and was turned out for a rest that may have been overdue.

"We never really did find out what went wrong in Portland," said Israel. "Both of her bad races were in the slop, so maybe that was it. Or maybe we just ran her a couple of times too many."

Whatever it was, the problem seems to have been solved by a rest and a return to her favorite surface.

"She is healthy, she is eating well, and she is working so well it's scary," said Israel. "She seems to be about as good as she can be, and we're just hoping that is good enough."