06/30/2005 11:00PM

Willard Straight to get fair shot

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Willard Straight should get a pace that helps his late kick in the Poker.

ELMONT, N.Y. - A rock-hard turf course and the lack of other speed gave L'Oiseau d'Argent all the advantages when he beat Willard Straight in a classified allowance race here on June 10.

When the two meet again in Sunday's Grade 3, $100,000 Poker Handicap at Belmont Park, conditions suggest Willard Straight could turn the tables on that rival.

L'Oiseau d'Argent and Willard Straight are just two of eight horses in a very evenly matched Poker, run at one mile on the Widener Turf Course. Aggadan is entered in case the race is moved to the main track.

Though the forecast is for dry weather Sunday, Belmont's turf courses have absorbed significant rain during the week, and severe thunderstorms were forecast Friday night. Moreover, such early speed types as Seeking the Glory, Gulch Approval, and Remind figure to keep L'Oiseau d'Argent from stealing off to an easy lead.

has run only three times in the last 15 months. He had a stifle problem after running seventh in the Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap in March 2004. He returned from the layoff to win the restricted Troy Stakes at Saratoga on Sept. 3. Willard Straight ran sixth, but lost by only 2 1/4 lengths, in the Grade 2 Kelso in October. Shortly after that he was found to have a hairline fracture.

In last month's allowance race, Willard Straight raced in midpack while L'Oiseau d'Argent stole off to a seven-length lead after a half-mile in 47.44 seconds. Willard Straight rallied three wide but never threatened the winner through the stretch.

"He had a habit of dropping way out of it," said trainer Todd Pletcher of Willard Straight. "That's why I was happy to see him a little closer last time. He's got a good closing kick. Hopefully, he can put himself in a good stalking position and still give it to us. He's run some races good enough to win one like this."

Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of , acknowledges this race came up much tougher than last time, and is hopeful the turf is sufficiently firm on Sunday.

is another who prefers firm turf. He set a world record of 1:31.41 for a mile at Gulfstream Park in January and validated that with a victory in the Grade 3 Appleton Handicap. After finishing fourth in the Maker's Mark at Keeneland, Mr. Light missed the Jaipur because of a wrenched ankle. Trainer Angel Penna said Mr. Light missed about 10 days of training, but the ankle is no longer an issue.

Ecclesiastic and Gulch Approval, the first- and third-place finishers in the seven-furlong Jaipur, are also contenders in the Poker.