01/31/2003 12:00AM

Top guns wait for Southwest

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The $50,000 Mountain Valley did not fill for Sunday, but that doesn't mean there is a shortage of 3-year-olds at this Oaklawn Park meet. A number of promising colts are pointing for the $75,000 Southwest Stakes later in the meet, among them Great Notion, Sir Cherokee, and Comic Truth.

The last time the six-furlong Mountain Valley was not run was 1947. In its place, the Sunday feature will be a one-mile conditioned allowance race that drew Windward Passage, who won last year's Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn.

Great Notion, who was beaten a nose by Champali last out in the $50,000 Prevue at Turfway Park on Jan. 4, is set to make his two-turn debut next month in the Southwest, a one-mile race to be run March 1.

Trainer Darrin Miller thinks Great Notion, who won the first two starts of his career wire to wire, will handle the distance.

"I think that's not going to be a problem for us," said Miller. "He's obviously shown a great deal of speed, and right now, that's where he wants to be, on the front end, and I think he's got the class to carry it out."

Great Notion is by Elusive Quality, and is out of an unraced half-sister to Talinum, who as a 3-year-old won the Grade 1 Flamingo. The colt is one of the main reasons Miller shipped to Oaklawn. This is his first season in Hot Springs.

"We were in Kentucky, and with the weather it kind of got difficult to train, and we wanted to keep him going on," said Miller, who works as a private trainer for Silverton Hills Farm, which owns Great Notion.

Trainer Mike Tomlinson also is stabled at Oaklawn for the first time and he, too, came on because of a promising 3-year-old, Sir Cherokee.

"We needed to get this colt out of the elements in Kentucky for the winter," said Tomlinson.

Sir Cherokee, who is by Cherokee Run, is being pointed for the Southwest, and will come into the race with more two-turn experience than most of his foes. He won his maiden at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs this fall, then one start later finished fourth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Soto, in the Grade 2, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

"I think he's a very talented colt," said Tomlinson. "He's been a horse that was slow to mature mentally, but he's really come around since we freshened him after the Jockey Club at Churchill Downs."

Comic Truth, who is a a three-time stakes winner, is another colt who will bring valuable two-turn experience into the Southwest, which will be his next start, according to trainer Cole Norman.

In his most recent race, Comic Truth finished second to Outta Here in the $500,000 Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs. Before that he won the $75,000 Jean Lafitte around two turns, also at Delta.

Windward Passage makes 4-year-old debut

Windward Passage, who ran some of the best races of his career at Oaklawn last year, winning the Rebel and finishing third in both the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby and the $75,000 Southwest, will make his 4-year-old debut in the eighth race Sunday.

The $32,000 one-mile race, for horses who have never won two races other than maiden, claiming or starter, drew seven.

Windward Passage, who in his last start finished fifth in a Churchill Downs allowance on Nov. 26, will break from the rail under Luis Quinonez.

Table Talk, who exits a six-furlong sprint, and Steel Man, who showed good speed the last time he ran on dirt, should be prominent in the race, and could provide an honest pace that would fuel the late run of Windward Passage.

* Funeral services were held Thursday for longtime trainer Joe McMahan,who raced at Oaklawn and Louisiana Downs. He died Monday at a local hospital. McMahan was 63.

McMahan began working on the racetrack in 1958. One of his recent stakes winners was Preysum. McMahan, who was a brother of the late trainer Major C. McMahan, is survived by his wife, Sue; sons Joe and Tim; and a daughter, Michelle.

* With freezing temperatures forcing the cancellation of training for three days late last month, work tabs were quite long last week, with 264 horses drilling Tuesday and 216 working Wednesday.

* The purse for the Essex Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds and up on Feb. 22, has been increased from $75,000 to $100,000, officials announced Friday.