05/19/2008 12:00AM

Two Step Salsa edge in Laz Barrera


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sunday's Grade 3 Lazaro Barrera Memorial at Hollywood Park attracted a compact field, but it is still an interesting betting race. Two of the six runners in the Barrera, Salute the Sarge and Dixie Chatter, are graded stakes winners, but there are other contenders in the field who also deserve respect.

Salute the Sarge was very consistent while winning his first three starts, including the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship and the Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar.

Although he hasn't yet beaten Grade 1 company, he ran well while finishing second at that class level in the Del Mar Futurity and the Norfolk at Santa Anita. His ninth-place finish on a sloppy track in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is a throwout as he is obviously more talented than that performance indicates.

Rate him on his sprint win in the San Miguel in his return at Santa Anita and Salute the Sarge should be a prime contender here. The catch is that you will have to look past his subsequent seventh-place finish in Keeneland's Grade 2 Lexington. That is a reasonable approach, since some horses don't handle Polytrack as well as others, but it still adds an unwelcome element of risk to a potential bet on a horse who is unlikely to offer a square price. Then again, the fact that Salute the Sarge is 2 for 2 at Hollywood Park will go a long way towards encouraging his supporters to expect a rebound.

Dixie Chatter is the other graded stakes winner. He earned that distinction when he defeated Salute the Sarge by 1 1/4 lengths in the Grade 1 Norfolk. Factor in some extra credit for added maturity since that race in September and he could be hard to handle as he makes his comeback. His strong work tab will bolster his chances.

Afleet Ruler ran respectably while finishing third then second in route turf stakes races in his two most recent starts. But his lone win came in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special at Santa Anita, and his career-best 94 Beyer was also earned sprinting when he finished third behind the speedy Bob Black Jack in the Sunshine Millions Dash, a six furlong race run in 1:06.53. He could improve enough on the distance switch to upset this field.

Wind's Legacy ran a career-best race when he beat allowance company as he stretched out to a route distance for the first time. But his maiden win was earned in a seven-furlong race, and he is 2 for 2 on this track.

Rapidity will be making his first start outside of Great Britain, but he has won four straight races, all on synthetic surfaces.

I'll give a narrow edge to Two Step Salsa. He dueled most of the way and beat maiden specials at Santa Anita going six furlongs in his debut. He dueled again but still won on the jump to $80,000 optional claiming at that same distance second time out.

Although his 245 turf Tomlinson is ordinary, Two Step Salsa continued to improve when he finished second with a 93 Beyer in a six-furlong turf stakes. He should get a good trip from the rail while on or close to the early lead today, and the hope is that he will continue to improve with experience as he makes his fourth career start.

Scanning through the rest of the card, Liberian Freighter is an interesting play in the fifth race. He's in good form, he won his lone previous start on this turf course last time, and his early and tactical speed make a good trip likely from his rail post.

And remember to take a look at Aspen Diamond in the ninth race. She rallied from ninth behind a slow pace to finish fifth going down the hill in a 6 1/2-furlong turf race at Santa Anita in her debut. She was going well late in that race and should like stretching out to a mile.