03/07/2009 1:00AM

Trio have bigger goals in mind


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The presence of Grade 2 winners Acoma and Bear Now, as well as talented newcomer Smart Surprise, has made the Grade 3, $150,000 Azeri at Oaklawn on Sunday a notable prep for next month's Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap.

The connections of all three starters indicated they would like to advance to the April 4 race here, with much hinging on performance Sunday. The Azeri, at 1 1/16 miles, drew seven fillies and mares, including recent Oaklawn winners French Kiss and Initforthekandy.

Smart Surprise could go favored following a dominant win in the $60,000 Chou Croute at Fair Grounds on Feb. 14. She powered to a 6 1/4-length win in the 1 1/16-mile race, earning a career-best Beyer Figure of 105. It was the second straight stakes win for Smart Surprise, a 4-year-old who will be making her graded stakes debut in the Azeri.

"I think the filly is steadily improving, and it's time to step her up," said Josie Carroll, who trains Smart Surprise. "Should she take to the course and company, we have to think of her as a potential filly for the Apple Blossom."

Smart Surprise, who is looking for her fourth consecutive win, will break from post 4 under Robby Albarado.

Acoma is making her first start since closing well to win the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere at Churchill Downs on Nov. 8. Before that race, she won the Grade 3 Valley View at Keeneland.

"She put together two very good races back to back," said David Carroll, who trains Acoma. "They were on turf. [But] with her, the question is how happy she is in her surroundings. If she's happy and training well, she runs well regardless of surface."

Earlier in her career, Acoma won her maiden on Polytrack at Keeneland as well as the Grade 3 Dogwood on dirt at Churchill. Carroll said the filly has settled in well at Oaklawn. Acoma will break from the rail under Julien Leparoux.

The millionaire Bear Now is making her second start of the year following a runner-up finish as the favorite in the $60,000 Truly Bound at Fair Grounds on Jan. 17.

"She hooked into Rolling Sea, who ran a triple-A race and broke the stakes record," said Al Stall Jr., who trains Bear Now. "So, running second there, that was fine."

The barn then decided to give Bear Now a nice amount of time between the Truly Bound and Azeri.

"She acts like she's ready to run a real good race," said Stall, who has given the mount to Jamie Theriot.