02/09/2007 12:00AM

Tough test for Circular Quay

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Circular Quay might show where he stands in the 3-year-old hierarchy in Saturday's Risen Star.

NEW ORLEANS - It's not the average horse that can win his career debut at 5 1/2 furlongs in June of his 2-year-old season and emerge as a hopeful for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby the next spring. Circular Quay clearly is not the average horse, but Saturday's Risen Star Stakes will help determine where Circular Quay, one of the best 2-year-olds of 2006, stands in the early-season 3-year-old hierarchy.

Saturday's race also will test the skills of Eclipse Award-winning jockey John Velazquez. Circular Quay is an established closer, and he will have a whole herd of horses to run past. A full field was entered in the Grade 3, $200,000 Risen Star, and even with the scratch of Buffalo Man, kept home in Florida because of a poor post position, the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star will go with 13 horses, barring late scratches.

Race 9 on an 11-race program that starts at 12:30op.m. Central, the Risen Star is one of five stakes on an afternoon dubbed Louisiana Derby Preview Day. The Taylor's Special kicks off the stakes action, but it isn't included in an all-Gradeo3 pick four with a guaranteed $200,000 pool. That sequence begins with the Mineshaft Handicap, goes through the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap and the Silverbulletday Stakes, and lands on the Risen Star.

Circular Quay races under the name of Michael McCarthy and has been training in California with McCarthy, a Todd Pletcher assistant, for his 3-year-old debut. But Pletcher's 45-day suspension ends Friday, and he is expected to saddle Circular Quay.

The horse that fans see in the Fair Grounds paddock won't bowl them over, according to McCarthy.

"He's on the smaller side, but he's very well put together," McCarthy said. "When he walks into the paddock, he will not be some 17-hand monster, but he's had a good winter, and we're excited to get him started."

Circular Quay has the pedigree of a route horse, but has not entirely answered questions about his two-turn ability. He easily won his first three races, all sprints, taking the seven-furlong, Grade 1 Hopeful by more than four lengths with help from a fast pace. Stretched to two turns in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, Circular Quay finished second, 1 3/4 lengths behind Great Hunter and a nose in front of Street Sense, who came back to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 10 lengths, with Circular Quay a troubled second and Great Hunter third.

Doug O'Neill trains Great Hunter, but it is another O'Neill horse, Notional, who many will accord the best chance of beating Circular Quay on Saturday. Notional didn't debut until mid-October, winning a sprint maiden race by more than two lengths. He was third in the seven-furlong Hollywood Prevue Stakes and a close sixth in the 1 1/16-mile Hollywood Futurity - both on a synthetic surface - before winning the one-mile San Rafael, a softer spot, by four lengths on Jan. 13.

O'Neill said Notional "ran much better than it looks in the Hollywood Futurity," and that "as far as distance, he hasn't shown anything in the morning to make him seem limited."

"This will be very interesting with the shipping, to see how he does with that," O'Neill added. "He is a good-feeling colt, but he is professional and classy coming out of his own stall."

Circular Quay drew much better in post 4 than Notional, who breaks from post 12.

Zanjero heads a sizable local contingent, several of whom look overmatched on paper. Zanjero, a proven router, won a pair of two-turn races in Kentucky last fall, and was entered in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but was excluded. He capped his 2-year-old year with a second to pro-tem division leader Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Remsen Stakes. Trainer Steve Asmussen appears to view the Risen Star as a jumping-off point for future stakes races.

"I expect him to run extremely well, but this might not be his best race," Asmussen said.

The Risen Star pace should be fast, with several stretch-out sprinters fueling the early fractions.