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IT'S COMING DOWN TO A THREE-HORSE RACE.

Byline: ART WILSON

HORSE RACING

Invasor's injury and subsequent retirement earlier this year turned the Eclipse Award race for Horse of the Year into a quagmire. It's a talented group that's vying for the sport's most prestigious honor, but at this point there is no clear-cut favorite.

The top three candidates include one of the best 3-year- olds from a year ago, a filly who shocked the boys in this year's Belmont Stakes and a fresh colt who skipped the final leg of the Triple Crown series and appears set for a superb fall campaign.

You can't tell the players without a scorecard, so here goes:

Lawyer Ron, last year's Arkansas Derby winner before a disappointing 12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, will race in the Woodward Handicap at Belmont Park on Sept. 1 after a stirring track-record performance in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

A winner of three of five starts in 2007, Lawyer Ron won the Whitney by 43/4lengths and ran the 11/8-mile distance on dirt in 1:46.64 -- surpassing the previous record of 1:47.04 set by Left Bank in the 2002 running of the Whitney.

Lawyer Ron also won the Oaklawn Handicap in April by four lengths, running the 11/8miles at his favorite track in 1:49. The Todd Pletcher- trained colt is 4 for 4 at Oaklawn Park.

Rags to Riches is another Pletcher runner who became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont when she outdueled Curlin through the stretch.

She missed the Coaching Club American Oaks after spiking a fever and then was pulled up during a workout at Belmont Park but has been given a clean bill of health and is expected to race next in the Ruffian Stakes on Sept. 8 before heading to the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct.27 at Monmouth Park.

The daughter of A.P. Indy is 5 for 5 this year, and four of the victories came in Grade I stakes -- the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks at Santa Anita, the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont. She broke her maiden Jan. 7 at Santa Anita.

Street Sense, this year's Kentucky Derby winner who appeared on the verge of also winning the Preakness Stakes before he was caught in the final stages by Curlin, is the favorite for Horse of the Year in many voters' minds.

Trainer Carl Nafzger decided to skip the Belmont and prepare his colt for late summer and fall and the ultimate goal -- the Breeders' Cup Classic. He came back with a powerful victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes in late July at Saratoga and will face sixrivals in Saturday's TraversStakes.

So who do you like?

Nafzger knows what Street Sense needs to do.

"I know if we're gonna be Horse of the Year, we gotta win Saturday and we gotta win the Breeders' Cup," he said. "That's the way it looks to me."

Same for Lawyer Ron. If the Langfuhr colt wins the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup Classic, he's going to be first on many voters' Eclipse ballots.

The wild card is Rags to Riches. She's the only one of the trio that does not control her own destiny. She can win her final two races and still come in second-best in Horse of the Year voting to Lawyer Ron or Street Sense.

But Nafzger says she's a top contender.

"I think she'd definitely be a viable candidate," he said. "If we win our next races out, if she wins her races out, truthfully, both of us deserve to be Horse of the Year. You can't take anything away from her, and you can't take anything away from us.

"But both of us have to do a lot to get there, OK? We gotta win."

There are some minor players after the top trio.

Haskell Invitational winner Any Given Saturday, another talented runner in Pletcher's loaded stable, would attract Horse of the Year support with victories in the Brooklyn Handicap on Sept. 22 at Belmont Park and then the Classic.

Ditto Curlin, four of seven in 2007 and capable of winning his final two planned starts of the year -- the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 30 and the Classic.

And what about the Carla Gaines-trained filly Nashoba's Key, six for six this year and coming off an ultra-impressive victory in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 5? If she goes eight for eight, capping her campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, and there is an upset in the Classic, she could very well slip in the back door.

The one person sitting in the cat bird's seat today, besides Pletcher, is jockey John Velazquez, who has the mount on two of the top three -- Lawyer Ron and Rags to Riches -- and is undoubtedly licking his chops in anticipation of Breeders' Cup Day.

Whatever, Nafzger summed it up best.

"It's a damn good bunch of horses out there right now," he said.

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OUT OF THE GATE

- Art Wilson
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Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 24, 2007
Words:849
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