08/08/2006 11:00PM

Two siblings give Irwin many options


BOSSIER CITY, La. - Trainer Ralph Irwin is sporting a powerful one-two punch in the region's stakes ranks these days with half-siblings Tortuga Flats and Tortuga Straits.

Older sister Tortuga Flats, a 3-year-old filly by Wild Zone, was a three-time stakes winner in dirt sprints before trying the grass for the first time in last month's Elge Rasberry Stakes for Louisiana-breds. That race was loaded with talent, including four other stakes winners and plenty who, like Tortuga Flats, had previously shown a high turn of early foot.

Under patient handling by Luis Quinonez, who now has a perfect 5-for-5 record on the filly, Tortuga Flats changed tactics and rated off the pace before staging a four-wide rally to prevail by a length.

"This gives her such another dimension," Irwin said. "The doors now just fly open. And that's what thrilled me more about even winning the race. It was now, 'We can go to another level of options.' "

With Louisiana Downs Champions Day coming up next week, Tortuga Flats gives Irwin and owner John Balensiefen myriad possibilities. She could try older fillies and mares in the $100,000 Victoria Stakes at six furlongs, given her previous success sprinting; attempt the $100,000 Walmac Matchmaker at 1 1/16 miles on turf; or stay in her own age group in the $100,000 Louisiana Breeders Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

Irwin said earlier in this week that the immediate plan is to keep Tortuga Flats on the grass and going long.

"We just nominated to the two route events," Irwin said. "She has taken to the turf so well since we first started working her over it. She relaxes like a good racemare should, and she just accelerates when asked. We really think she has a future over it."

As good as the older sister is, younger brother Tortuga Straits, by Gold Tribute, may be even more talented, according to Irwin.

"He might be ready to take it to another level," Irwin said following a smashing 4 1/4-length win by Tortuga Straits in last Saturday's colt and gelding division of the $100,000 John Franks Memorial Sales Stakes at Evangeline Downs.

Also a Louisiana-bred, Tortuga Straits is eligible for the $100,000 Stardust Stakes on next Saturday's Champions Day card, but Irwin says that may be too soon to run back. Tortuga Straits is a strong possibility for the $75,000 Lafayette Stakes on Sept. 4, which concludes the Evangeline meeting.

Tortuga Straits is owned by Karla Balensiefen, the wife of John Balensiefen, who owns Tortuga Flats.

"These two are just outstanding folks," said Irwin. "They do a lot of charitable work on the backside and have just been terrific for the game."