06/15/2007 12:00AM

Whittling five contenders to one


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Races with small fields are often fairly easy to handicap. Typically one or two horses stand out, and there is little betting value to be found. But that isn't the case with Sunday's Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park. Although there are only six 3-year-olds scheduled to compete in this 1 1/16-mile race, five of them are good enough to contend for the win, and the other colt can make his presence felt for a portion of the purse on his best day.

The Merv Griffin-owned Cobalt Blue won the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita, and was the even-money favorite in the Grade 2 Illinois Derby. He ran a disappointing race when he finished seventh that day, then was rested with seven weeks between races. Bettors liked his chances of rebounding when they pounded him down to 3-5 odds in the Alydar Stakes at Hollywood, and he ran a much-improved race. Cobalt Blue appeared to have the race won when he assumed command at the top of the stretch without being asked for his best, but he could not withstand the late kick of Awesome Gambler and settled for second. A return to top form would make him tough, but is it a good idea to take a mild price on a horse who has already lost two straight races as the favorite?

Time to Get Even won a swift 6 1/2-furlong maiden special at Santa Anita with a 100 Beyer Speed Figure second time out, then handled the jump to Grade 3 competition when he won the seven-furlong Laz Barrera by a neck. Will he be as effective when he stretches out to this route distance? His price might not be high enough to justify the risk.

Desert Code enjoys the advantage of being the most seasoned contender in the field. And he is in good form now with two wins, a second by a nose, and a third-place finish, only a neck behind Time to Get Even, in the Laz Barrera. The concern is that all three of his wins were earned in 6o1/2-furlong races, two on the turf and one on Hollywood's Cushion Track. The good news for handicappers hoping he will handle the added distance is that he made some late progress going seven furlongs last time. The bad news is that he was still outkicked late by Time to Get Even in that race.

Also, Desert Code was 1 1/2 lengths clear with a furlong to go in the one-mile La Puente on the grass at Santa Anita, but tired late and lost by a nose. Based on that performance, the extra half-furlong he will be asked to cover in this race could hinder him.

Albertus Maximus has won two straight races at this distance, a maiden special at Santa Anita and an allowance at Hollywood. But he had a comfortable journey while loose on the lead in his allowance win, and will have to work harder throughout on the class raise Sunday. He has made little Beyer progress recently with a 90 three races ago, followed by a 92 and a 91.

Unusual Suspect will have to match his best turf form to nibble here.

I will give the edge to Awesome Gambler. This race could set up well for a horse who is capable of finishing strongly, and he is the one most likely to do so. There is no question that he can handle the distance. He was last of eight early when he beat maidens at this distance at Hollywood, and he looked very good while winning the 1 1/8-mile Alydar. As mentioned earlier, heavy favorite Cobalt Blue appeared to have that race under control at the top of the stretch, but Awesome Gambler launched a powerful sustained closing bid from seventh, and won going away. He can continue to improve in the third race of his form cycle, and will be formidable if he does.