11/25/2004 1:00AM

Water Cannon back in action

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Water Cannon, the sharpest 3-year-old based in Maryland during the spring, returns from a five-month layoff to face the sizzling shipper Play Bingo in Saturday's $100,000 Northern Dancer Stakes at Pimlico.

A 1 1/8-mile race, the Northern Dancer is restricted to Maryland-bred 3-year-olds.

From late December 2003 through mid-April, won five consecutive races, including four stakes. He was not competitive, however, when moved up to test graded stakes company in the Preakness and the Grade 2 Ohio Derby at Thistledown. Water Cannon has not started since his last-place finish at Thistledown on June 12, but shows a steady string of bullets at the Bowie training center.

"He's doing really well," said Linda Albert, Water Cannon's trainer. "I don't know whether he is ready to go a mile and an eighth with these, but we'll find out. There are a couple in this race that have been running really well and faster than Water Cannon ever has."

That group is headed by Play Bingo, who makes his stakes debut after reeling off four straight wins in Delaware and New Jersey. Play Bingo, trained by John Fisher, didn't win his maiden until July, but has improved dramatically during the fall, winning each of his last three starts, all against allowance runners, by at least two lengths.

Exaggerate This, a New York shipper trained by Todd Pletcher, needed 10 starts to finally win his maiden, but once he finally broke through that barrier, he remained sharp by beating first-level allowance horses going 1 1/8 miles.

White Mountain Boy won a pair of statebred stakes at Laurel Park last winter and may be sitting on a big race as he prepares to make the third start of his form cycle.