Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the Irish-bred Heatseeker, a 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway , was little known outside of California prior to his Big 'Cap victory. He was assigned top weight of 119 pounds for the 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Handicap, which has attracted a field of seven. The stretch-running specialist will concede from two to six pounds to his rivals.
Rafael Bejarano, who rode Heatseeker to a three-quarters-of-a-length win in the Big 'Cap March 1, is healthy again after sustaining two fractured vertebrae three weeks ago, and has the mount. They'll break from post position 4.
"I put Rafael on a horse (April 3) at Santa Anita," Hollendorfer said, "and I'm expecting he will be able to ride Heatseeker.
"Heatseeker has retained his form since the Big 'Cap," the trainer added, "and I'm expecting a good, competitive race from him Saturday. Of course a lot depends on pace. I'm hoping they go pretty good up front."
Heatseeker arrived in Hot Springs, Ark., on a flight from Southern California April 2. Racing exclusively in California, Heatseeker is 6-4-2 from 15 starts and has banked $927,776 for owner William Deburgh.
Four-time Eclipse Award trainer Todd Pletcher, represented by the duo of Circular Quay and Fairbanks in the race, won the last year's running with Lawyer Ron, later named the Eclipse Award winner as top older horse.
In his second start after a seven-month layoff, Circular Quay (3-1) defeated Grasshopper by a neck in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) at Fair Grounds March 8. The 4-year-old Thunder Gulch colt looks primed for another top effort under 117 pounds. John Velazquez replaces Garrett Gomez this time.
The 5-year-old Fairbanks (4-1), another son of Giant's Causeway, is coming off a second-place finish as the 6-5 favorite in the 1 3/16-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II).
Assistant Lauren Robson is tending to the Pletcher horses at Oaklawn while the boss is in New York to saddle two for the Wood Memorial (gr. I).
"The blinkers have really sharpened up Circular Quay," Robson said, "and I would expect to see him a bit closer to the pace than normal because Oaklawn favors speed. And I would think that Fairbanks will be close-up early. He has a lot of speed."
Buzzards Bay (8-1), the wire-to-wire winner by 6 1/2 lengths of the 2006 Oaklawn 'Cap, will break from the one-hole under regular rider Jose Valdivia Jr. The 6-year-old Marco Bay horse has been off form for trainer Ron Ellis since an allowance victory at Oak Tree last fall.
Fair Grounds shipper Silver Lord (12-1), breaking from the far outside with Calvin Borel, may also be a pace factor.
However, the tempo doesn't figure to be that hot and that could hurt the chances of Heatseeker and another California invader, two-time grade I winner Tiago (7-2). Off slowly In the Santa Anita Handicap, Tiago lagged 24 lengths off the pace after a half-mile before rallying to finish fourth, four lengths behind Heatseeker.
Reporting for Duty (12-1), third behind Circular Quay in the New Orleans for trainer Steve Asmussen last time out, completes a competitive field.
$500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II, Race 10, 6:02 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Buzzards Bay (FL), 116, Jose Valdivia, Jr.
2. Tiago (KY), 117, Mike E. Smith
3. Fairbanks (KY), 115, Ramon A. Dominguez
4. Heatseeker (IRE), 119, Rafael Bejarano
5. Circular Quay (KY), 117, John R. Velazquez
6. Reporting for Duty (KY), 113, Shaun Bridgmohan
7. Silver Lord (KY), 113, Calvin H. Borel