03/07/2002 12:00AM

Can Freespool take heat in Gold Cup?

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PHOENIX - Freespool can flat fly early, and he's the defending champ in Saturday's $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, the meet's marquee race. But in this game there's considerable emphasis on recent accomplishment, and Freespool hasn't done much lately.

Freespool's recent form decline has apparently given optimism to many others: 10 are entered against Freespool, the 121-pound highweight, in the six-furlong Gold Cup.

Last year, after knocking heads with some of the best in the nation, including Kona Gold, Big Jag, and Men's Exclusive, Freespool was sent off a strong favorite in the Gold Cup off his class and dazzling early foot. He may well be the quickest horse in the country for a half-mile. As is his custom, he sizzled early in last year's Gold Cup and just held on for the victory.

However, age and miles may have taken their toll on the 6-year-old Freespool, who is trained by Ted West. Oh, the speed is still there, but the fades have become markedly more severe since his win here. In his last two starts he gave way badly.

There are some in the Gold Cup field who can give Freespool fits early, so if he's not as good as he once was, can he be expected to duel and still fend off the closers? Regular rider Isaias Enriquez comes with Freespool from Southern California for the ride, and they will break from post 3.

Even an in-form Freespool would have a daunting task here because of the presence of other significant speed. Gold Cup entrants Rocky Bar, Rio Oro, and Coded Message also can sizzle early.

There are at least two in the field who would benefit from a suicidal pace, stalkers Quinton's Gold and Nancy's Joker. They ran a bang-up one-two in the Feb. 16 Coyote Handicap here, with Quinton's Gold prevailing by a neck. They earned Beyer Speed Figures of 105 and 104.

Quinton's Gold has been facing some of the best sprinters on this circuit. Trained by Kent Jensen, he has picked the right time to get hot.

Nancy's Joker isn't nearly as seasoned as Quinton's Gold - he's run just seven times while Quinton's Gold is a veteran of 18 races. But Nancy's Joker has come to hand for trainer Clinton Stuart. His only poor outing came when he routed at Prairie Meadows last summer, but sprinting he's 3 for 4.

Others entrants include Majorbigtimesheet, who once rubbed elbows with some of the best sprinters out West, and No Cal Bread, second in this race last year, just a head behind Freespool.

The Gold Cup goes as the ninth race on a 10-race card.

o Also highlighting one of the meet's biggest days are the $35,000 Black Mountain Handicap and the $50,000 Cactus Flower Handicap.

The Black Mountain, a 1 1/16-mile race for older horses, has lured such stalwarts as Top Hit, Bristolville, and Eagleton. Among those in the Cactus Flower, a six-furlong race for fillies and mares, are Knoll Lake, Ode to Elaine, Salty Helen, and Balboa Park.