12/31/2009 1:00AM

Veterans leave comfort zones in stakes

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Although Encaustic has been first or second in 6 of 10 starts at Laurel, he hasn't run on the main track there since December 2007. Until he stretched out a little more than two weeks ago, Ah Day had been sprinting in 15 of his last 16 starts.

Both grizzled veterans, who have made a combined 72 lifetime starts, look like prominent players even though they're a bit out of their usual comfort zone in Saturday's $70,000 Northern Dancer Stakes at Laurel.

The one-turn, one-mile race drew a field of 11 older horses, including Grade 3 winner Researcher.

The 6-year-old Encaustic was well-traveled in 2009, racing at seven different tracks. His best performances came at Mountaineer, where he won two stakes, including the $125,000 Mountaineer Mile in November.

Ah Day appeared to have lost a couple of steps when he finished fifth in three consecutive starts between August and October. Although the previous two times trainer King Leatherbury asked Ah Day to race beyond seven furlongs, he was beaten 27 1/2 and 56 1/2 lengths, the now 7-year-old gelding responded to a drop in class and the stretch-out to 1 1/16 miles on Dec. 18 to score by a neck, earning a 101 Beyer Speed Figure that was his best since he won the six-furlong Fire Plug with a 110 Beyer in January 2008.

Ah Day now wheels back 15 days later, a highly positive angle for Leatherbury, who shows a 4-for-15 (36 percent) record with winners coming back in 15 days or less the past five years, according to DRF's Formulator. The last time Ah Day was in a similar situation, he romped by 5 1/2 lengths in the 2006 running of the Federico Tesio.

The Charles Town-based Researcher was the beaten favorite in his last two starts, including the Mountaineer Mile, where he was three lengths behind Encaustic. His three best races in 2009 all came going 1 1/8 miles at Charles Town.

The intriguing stretch-out is Greenspring, a lightly raced 5-year-old who has been first or second in all six of his starts. He will be racing beyond six furlongs for the first time after rallying to get second while carrying 125 pounds in the Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct.