04/29/2004 11:00PM

Villyard has pair in Auburn


AUBURN, Wash. - Sunday's Auburn Stakes for 3-year-olds appears to be a wide-open affair, but trainer Aubrey Villyard has roughly twice the chance of winning as anybody else.

That's because Villyard will be the only trainer saddling two entrants, and both look like legitimate contenders. The situation is something of a novelty for Villyard, who has campaigned a small stable here at Emerald Downs since the track opened in 1996.

"Just to have a couple who look like they belong in a stakes race is a treat for me," the trainer said. "I've never really had this kind of stock before."

The horses in question are Random Memo and Count Orange, both of whom collected their maiden wins while under Villyard's care last season. Random Memo went on to win a highly rated $50,000 optional claiming sprint before finishing third in the one-mile WTBA Lads Stakes. He concluded his juvenile campaign with a troubled sixth in the rich Gottstein Futurity at 1 1/16 miles.

"He was squeezed back at the start, then he was just annihilated in the stretch," Villyard said. "I thought he would run second for sure before that happened."

Random Memo, a son of Memo who races for Frank and Phyllis Gaunt, took the winter off and returned to training here in early February.

"He has been training well, and there haven't been any setbacks," Villyard said. "I think he is about as ready as I can get him off works. The only thing that makes me nervous is that most of the others in this race have had at least one start this year."

Count Orange has been racing, but not for Villyard. After his maiden win last August, owners Dave Reising and Jeff Stoddard handed Count Orange over to Grant Forster, who campaigned him in the Midwest. Count Orange won a $75,000 claiming race at Churchill Downs in November, then ran a good fourth in an allowance at Turfway Park in December. He finished an even better second in an allowance race at Oaklawn in February.

Count Orange's three subsequent starts at Oaklawn netted only a pair of fourths and then an eighth, against $50,000 optional claimers last time out on April 8. He was returned to Villyard's care after that race.

"I think maybe he got a little sour toward the end of his campaign back east, so I've just been trying to freshen him up since I got him back," Villyard said. "I think he is plenty fit, so I haven't done much with him. He is eating well and feeling good, but I don't really know what to expect from him. I'm just trying to get to know him again."

Villyard is coming off his best season at Emerald Downs, having won 16 races from only 68 starters at last year's stand. He has roughly the same number of horses (14) this year and hopes to duplicate last year's success, but he will have to do it without his most prolific winner. The trainer said Misconception, who won five races while moving up the class ladder from the $3,200 to the $16,000 level, has been retired.

"He was 7, and his semi-good leg was starting to go bad, so the owners [the Gaunts] decided to retire him," Villyard said. "It was the right decision. I would have hated to see him get injured."

'Best Game' switched barns

Villyard might have had a third entrant in the Auburn Stakes, but Best Game in Town was claimed away for $15,000 by trainer Bonnie Jennie for owner Frank McDonald out of a powerful win here on April 18. In that five-furlong race, Best Game in Town overcame an awkward start to run down a loose-on-the-lead Distinctly Perfect in 57 seconds flat. He was the only winner on the nine-race card to overcome a dominating speed bias and score from off the pace.

Best Game in Town's performance surprised both Villyard, who noted that the horse scored his maiden win at the $12,500 level last year, and Jenne.

"I liked his breeding and the company he kept last year, but I was really only hoping he would be worth the money," Jenne said. "That's all I ever hope for, but I think we may have gotten lucky with this one. He just exploded down the lane on a day when nobody else was closing. I was pretty impressed."

Jenne was so impressed that she nominated Best Game in Town for the Auburn, then secured the riding services of this state's all-time leading stakes rider, Gary Baze.

"He's Gary's kind of horse," Jenne said. "He can close a lot of ground."

* Vicky Baze, who had been handling husband Gary Baze's book since she retired from

riding in 2000, has returned to galloping horses. Veteran agent Kenny Green is now booking mounts for Gary Baze.

* Trainer Doug Driever said Flying Phantom suffered a fractured knee while running fifth in the U.S. Bank Stakes here on April 18 and has been retired. She won her only previous start at Golden Gate.