02/24/2011 1:34PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 26

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NEW YORK – It’s 3-year-old day Saturday at Gulfstream Park as that track offers a trio of Grade 2 stakes events for that age group, races that also are the only graded stakes on the national calendar. Gulfstream’s feature is the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, which marks the 2011 debut of highly regarded Remsen Stakes winner To Honor and Serve and the first start from Soldat since his huge allowance win last month. But the $250,000 Davona Dale Stakes for fillies and the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes also are very interesting races.

Three-year-olds also are a predominant theme on the otherwise light Saturday stakes schedule. This group has stakes opportunities in the $100,000 Borderland Derby at Sunland Park, the $75,000 Miracle Wood at Laurel Park, and the $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby.

Hutcheson Stakes

There are a handful of horses in this race that could turn out to be important stakes performers as this season goes on. Travelin Man is one. He won his debut over the Gulfstream track early last month as though he was destined to become a sprinter/miler star, even earning a Beyer Speed Figure one point higher than the much-discussed 105 Beyer that Bind earned in his debut at Fair Grounds last Saturday.

Flashpoint is another who won his only start in the manner of a top-notch prospect. Crossbow won his last two starts and is bred to be any kind. Madman Diaries showed real ability when he won two stakes last year. And Manicero just wins, baby. He comes into this looking for his fourth straight stakes score and fifth straight win over all.

But what all of these horses must deal with Saturday is the likelihood of a debilitating early pace battle. Thanks to most of those mentioned above, there is a ton of speed in this Hutcheson. That could be problematic for Travelin Man and Flashpoint, who, regardless of how fast they went early in their only starts, will face much higher-quality early pace pressure this time. And the pace scenario also could mean trouble for Crossbow, who is under the gun breaking from the rail, and Madman Diaries, who will be making his first start in 3 1/2 months.

I want a closer in this spot, and I’m going with Leave of Absence. Leave of Absence has a trouble line for his sixth last time out in the Holy Bull, noting that he was squeezed back early, but don’t be fooled. Leave of Absence was going to drop back off the strong early pace in that race, anyway, and the truth is he really didn’t do any running. But Leave of Absence adds blinkers Saturday on the heels of a sharp bullet work earlier this week, and substantial improvement is expected.

Of course, Leave of Absence’s equipment change wouldn’t mean much if he didn’t previously indicate he had the ability to win a race like this, which he did in his two starts before the Holy Bull. Two starts back, Leave of Absence was a fast-closing second in the Spectacular Bid Stakes over the track, showing the kind of running style I’m looking for in this race. Three starts back, he got his maiden win decisively over a next-out winner, earning a high enough Beyer to put him right in the mix here.

I also respect Black N Beauty. Black N Beauty set or contested the strong pace in the Holy Bull (primarily with Mucho Macho Man, who came back to win last Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes) before fading to fifth. He won his prior two starts. Off the cutback in distance Saturday, I expect Black N Beauty to settle early, putting him in line for a good trip.

Lacombe Memorial Handicap

Forest Uproar won her last three starts laughing, and she will be tough to handle in this ostensible feature at Fair Grounds. Upperline will benefit from a second in her recent return from a seven-month layoff and also is an obvious win threat. She’s a better filly now than when she tried turf a year ago, and even those efforts on grass in stakes races were good. But I’m taking Exquisite.

Exquisite, who sports several efforts last year in Southern California that are easily good enough to win this, was a willing second in her recent return from a six-month absence. But while some might point to Exquisite’s history of running big off layoffs and suggest she might not run any better than she did in her comeback, which would not be good enough to win Saturday, I think she will improve. Here’s why: Exquisite was close to the early pace in her return. I feel she is most effective dropping back and making one big run, and I expect that to be the style she’ll employ Saturday.

Turf Paradise Derby

Indian Winter was scratched out of last Sunday’s San Vicente Stakes because, as a closer, he would have been up against it on the speed-favoring track at Santa Anita. In the end, it might have been a good thing as it is doubtful Indian Winter would have seriously threatened San Vicente one-two finishers The Factor and Sway Away. But off his win last time out in the San Pedro, Indian Winter is “the man” in this race. Unfortunately, he also will be a short price.

But I think Mr Artistic M D, who finished fourth behind Indian Winter in the San Pedro, is worth a shot. Mr Artistic M D was close up during the first quarter of the San Pedro, fell back around the far turn, but did finish with some interest to be beaten only three lengths. I suspect he can be more effective when allowed to relax early, and he should be able to do that Saturday with an anticipated slower pace in his first try around two turns.