04/06/2002 1:00AM

Big finish by John Little in stakes debut


JAMAICA, N.Y. - The day began with snow squalls. But, that wasn't the strangest thing that happened Saturday at Aqueduct.

In an oddly run race, John Little - who seemed the potential main speed in the six-horse field - rallied from fourth place and outfinished Windsor Castle in a stirring stretch duel to win the $200,000, Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap by a neck. Windsor Castle, who made a short lead in midstretch, finished second, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Ground Storm.

Evening Attire, the 3-2 favorite following three consecutive graded stakes victories, faded to fourth after surprisingly setting the early pace. Yankee Doodle Boy and Pleasant Divorce completed the order of finish.

John Little, who had won three of his last five starts, was making his stakes debut for owner-trainer Deborah Bodner, who won this race in 1999 with Smart Coupons. Though he had run well from just off the pace, John Little had won twice on the lead. Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. was planning on sending John Little to the lead, but backed off when Evening Attire went to the front, followed intently by Ground Storm and Pleasant Divorce.

So, Arroyo had John Little in fourth position, about seven lengths back. John Little uncorked a four-wide bid entering the far turn and made the lead midway around the turn. Windsor Castle, who was fifth early, rallied outside of John Little and headed him in midstretch, but was no match when John Little battled back on the inside.

"Our strategy was to go to the front, but when I saw those three, I let him relax and let them go and it worked out perfect," Arroyo said. "He's a brave horse."

John Little covered the nine furlongs in 1:49.25 over a fast track and returned $15 to win.

Windsor Castle, who won the Grade 2 Remsen over this track in 2000, looked like a winner in midstretch, but was outfinished.

"He ran awful hard," said Windsor Castle's rider, Robbie Davis. He made the lead; he kept digging as hard as he could. The other horse just fought back gamely and just outfinished us."

John Little, a 4-year-old New Jersey-bred gelded son of Blushing John, will most likely make his next start at Monmouth Park, though Bodner did not have a race picked out.