01/14/2004 1:00AM

Arkansas Derby champs clash

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Sir Cherokee and Private Emblem, both winners of the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, will face each other in Saturday night's $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

The 1 1/8-mile race drew eight horses, including turf specialist Freefourinternet, the 119-pound highweight, whose last win was on dirt in an optional claimer at Fair Grounds.

Also on the Maxxam card are the $40,000 Sam Houston Sprint Championship and the $40,000 Sam Houston Distaff, which drew a field of 12. The card will complement the Texas Thoroughbred Association's annual awards banquet, which for the first time is being held at Sam Houston.

Sir Cherokee, who won the Arkansas Derby last year, drew post 7 for the Maxxam. The draw sat well with Mike Tomlinson, who trains Sir Cherokee for Domino Stud of Lexington.

"I prefer to be a little toward the outside," he said, noting that Sir Cherokee will not have to stand in the gate long before the break. "The nice thing about him, though, is that with his running style [post] is not a factor."

Sir Cherokee is a closer, and he used his kick to run down Eugene's Third Son in last year's Arkansas Derby. He was then pointed for the Kentucky Derby, but two days before that race was found to have a small condylar fracture in his lower right hind leg. Surgery was not required, and after much rest, Sir Cherokee won his comeback in a Churchill Downs optional claimer Nov. 27.

He was to van from Oaklawn to Sam Houston on Thursday. The last Maxxam winner to van from Oaklawn was Mr Ross in 2002.

Private Emblem, who drew post 5, was an explosive winner of the Arkansas Derby in 2002. He comes into the Maxxam on the heels of a third-place finish in an optional claimer at Churchill Downs on Nov. 29.

The complete field, from the rail, is: Leo's Last Hurrahy, to be ridden by Felipe Valdez; Most Feared, Roman Chapa; Freefourinternet, Robby Albarado; Parrott Bay, Kerwin Clark; Private Emblem, Jeremy Beasley; Maysville Slew, Kevin Cogburn; Sir Cherokee, Terry Thompson; and Dusty Spike, Luis Quinonez.