06/03/2009 12:00AM

Union Avenue reclimbs class ladder


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With his fourth trainer, and nearly three years after the best performance of his career, Union Avenue will try to win the biggest race of his career in Saturday's $300,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park.

A 6-year-old horse, Union Avenue is best known for winning the Gradeo2 American Derby at Arlington Park in July 2006 with trainer Bill Mott. Union Avenue was trained by Neil Drysdale in 2007 and Graham Motion in 2008 before joining Jerry Hollendorfer's stable earlier this year.

For Hollendorfer, Union Avenue is perfect, having won a five-runner optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles on turf here on April 22. The race was his first victory since the American Derby, ending an eight-race losing streak.

Union Avenue will have something to prove in the Whittingham, a Grade 1 over 1 1/4 miles on turf. The race will be his first start at that level and first start in a stakes since a dull fifth-place finish in the Daytona Handicap at Santa Anita in February 2007.

Dan Ward, Hollendorfer's assistant at Hollywood Park, admits there is something of an unknown element to Union Avenue's participation in the Whittingham.

"He could run as hard as he can and finish fifth," he said. "You don't know when you step up, but I think he'll run well."

Ward thinks that Union Avenue's recent win is underrated because the horse received a relatively low Beyer Speed Figure of 88. Union Avenue stalked a slow pace and stormed home in the last furlong to win by 1o1/4 lengths.

"The time was slow because the whole race was slow," he said.

Ward credits Union Avenue's turnaround to a brighter attitude from the horse.

"When horses get sour, they don't want to run and train," he said.

The Whittingham drew only six runners, but the race has a strong field, including defending champion Artiste Royal; Midships, the top turf marathoner of the Santa Anita meeting; and Madeo, the winner of the Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap here in April.

Stevens intends to train small string

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has launched a small training operation at Santa Anita, and will have his first starters as early as next month.

Stevens, 46, has focused on television commentary and working as a bloodstock consultant since his retirement in November 2005. Currently, he has two horses in his care with more expected later this month.

"I want to take my time and hopefully get some decent people [behind me]," he said.

Stevens said he is training Lesson in Deceit, a 3-year-old stakes winner at Turf Paradise earlier this year, and a 2-year-old filly by Leroidesanimaux. The 2-year-old could run before the end of the Hollywood Park meeting on July 19, while Lesson in Deceit is being pointed for the Oceanside Stakes at Del Mar on July 22.

Stevens said Wednesday that he will continue to work in an advisory capacity for IEAH Stables as well as doing commentary for NBC and HRTV.

"I have no intention of giving that up," he said.

At the stable, Stevens will be assisted by his son, T.C. Stevens.

Stevens had a brief stint as an assistant trainer to Alex Hassinger in 1999 after he quit riding for a time because of persistent knee injuries. At the time, both Stevens and Hassinger worked for Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp.

"It was a good learning experience to work alongside Alex," Stevens said.

Stevens returned to riding in 2000 and retired for good in 2005 after a 27-year career that included three wins in the Kentucky Derby and eight victories in Breeders' Cup races. In recent years, he has been a fixture at Santa Anita, working as a commentator and occasionally working horses in the mornings.

Harrington hopes for a stalking trip

Trainer Mike Harrington, whose stable has had an excellent first half of the Hollywood Park meeting with 2-year-olds, has two juveniles running in Friday's second race, which is for statebred maidens over five furlongs.

Zees Echo, a first-time starter, and Awesome Swiss, who was fourth in his debut on April 22, have drawn posts 9 and 10. Despite a relatively short run to the turn, Harrington is not concerned about the draw. He hopes the pair can be factors from just off the pace.

"I think you're given a horse the wrong message when you send, send, send," Harrington said. "They should have a stalking trip, and that's what suits them."

Harrington considers Awesome Swiss to have the better chance. He was beaten 5 1/2 lengths in his debut in a race over 4 1/2 furlongs.

"I think we'll see a better race," Harrington said.

A win by Zees Echo would be a surprise. He worked quickly in April, but has not been as fast in recent weeks.