04/02/2008 11:00PM

Top-rank competitors gather for Handicap

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - There is no shortage of Grade 1 winners in the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. The 1 1/8-mile race to be run on Saturday has brought together four of them: Heatseeker, Circular Quay, Tiago, and Buzzards Bay.

"Whew. Strong race, deep field," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who will be represented by multiple stakes winner Reporting for Duty.

The Grade 2 Oaklawn, which will share a card with the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom, is rounded out by Fairbanks, the runner-up last out in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, and Silver Lord, who was second in the Grade 3 Mineshaft.

Heatseeker is the 119-pound highweight Saturday by virtue of his three-quarter-length win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 1. It was a career performance for the horse, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110.

"I was very pleased," said Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Heatseeker. "He laid back and made a good run.

"Every horse takes its own time to mature and find their self, and this horse has found himself and is very confident and is going very well."

Circular Quay, who won the Grade 1 Hopeful in 2006, also ran a career race in his last start March 8. He earned a Beyer Figure of 107 for his win in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, for which he added blinkers, raced closer to the pace than usual, and fought for a neck win over favored Grasshopper.

"We got the response that we were hoping to with the blinkers," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Circular Quay. "It was something we had considered in the past. We were a little concerned about altering a horse's natural running style, which with him has been to kind of drop back and make one run.

"We were happy he was able to finish the way he was after laying a little closer. I think what will be really interesting is to see if we get the same kind of response second-time blinkers, because sometimes you get a reaction one time, but maybe not the same reaction a second time."

Pletcher said Circular Quay has trained strongly since the New Orleans Handicap.

"He's made a big transition from 3 to 4 in terms of his physical appearance," he said. "He's a much stronger horse than he was a as 3-year-old, and he's carrying more condition, and I think that's part of the reason for his success the other day."

John Velazquez has the mount on Circular Quay.

"If they go faster than they were in the New Orleans Handicap, then maybe he'll be a little further back," said Pletcher.

Tiago, who won his maiden in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in 2007, was fourth last out in the Santa Anita Handicap.

"I didn't think Tiago got a break during the running of the race anywhere," said John Shirreffs, who trains Tiago.

"He sort of lost position early and had to make up ground into the first turn, so that's not his style. He just couldn't get a nice little rhythm going."

Tiago figures to be making his bid late under Mike Smith.

Buzzards Bay, who won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in 2005, is the speed from the rail. He won this race in 2006 with a career-best Beyer of 110.