A great finish for Notional

Times Staff Writer

Knocked out of the Kentucky Derby chase early last year when Stevie Wonderboy went to the sidelines, trainer Doug O'Neill figures to stay involved in 2007.

O'Neill's large stable includes three talented 3-year-olds, one of which began his year successfully on Saturday at Santa Anita.

Notional, the 7-10 favorite, rebounded from two losses over the Cushion track at Hollywood Park with a four-length victory in his two-turn debut in the $150,000 San Rafael Stakes.

Returning to Santa Anita for the first time since he beat maidens sprinting in his career debut Oct. 21, the newly blinkered California-bred son of In Excess tracked the pace in third for most of the trip, moved up outside pacesetter Tenfold into the stretch and went on to the decisive win. Owned by Paul Reddam and ridden by Corey Nakatani, Notional ran the mile in the Grade II stakes race in 1:36.48.

Not surprisingly, O'Neill liked what he saw from Notional, a $235,000 purchase last March at Barretts in Pomona, and eagerly awaits the 3-year-old debuts of Great Hunter and Liquidity.

Great Hunter, who won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., last fall before finishing third in a Breeders' Cup Juvenile won by Street Sense, is due to return in the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Memorial Stakes on March 3.

Meanwhile, Liquidity, who finished ahead of Notional when second to Stormello in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 16, is being aimed toward the $100,000 Sham on Feb. 3.

"The goal, obviously, is the first Saturday in May with all three -- if we were to get that lucky," said O'Neill. "We'll do whatever we have to do to get each one there.

"This colt ran great. We've been high on this horse pretty much ever since we've had him. Hopefully, he can run even better than he did today. Corey gave him a great trip and kept him out of trouble."

Tenfold, the 3-1 second choice making only his third start, saved the place by a head over Grapelli.

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Less than four months removed from his first victory, Awesome Gem, a 9-1 shot, became a graded stakes winner when he upset Midnight Lute, Brother Derek and eight other 4-year-olds in the $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes at Santa Anita.

Owned by a partnership that includes West Point Thoroughbreds and trained by Craig Dollase, Awesome Gem and jockey Tyler Baze edged Midnight Lute, the 2-1 second choice, on the wire. The final time in the Grade II was 1:41.90 for the 1 1/16 miles.

It was the third win in seven starts for Awesome Gem, a gelded son of Awesome Again who was a troubled second in the Sir Beaufort Stakes on the grass Dec. 26.

Brother Derek barely held off Arson Squad to finish third at 9-5 and run his losing streak to seven in the process. The California-bred hasn't won since the Santa Anita Derby last April 8.

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There is a pick six carry-over of $178,390 today at Santa Anita.

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Hard Spun, the even-money favorite, remained unbeaten in four starts with an easy win in the $100,000 Lecomte at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The 3-year-old Danzig colt, a Pennsylvania-bred owned by Fox Hills Farms Inc. and trained by Larry Jones, ran the mile in 1:37.87 under jockey Mario Pino.

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bob.mieszerski@latimes.com

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