01/08/2003 12:00AM

Chop Chop thrives with simple plan

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NEW ORLEANS - All Chop Chop ever wanted was to be left alone. All this pulling on his reins, holding him back during races when he was ready to go - what was that all about?

No, Chop Chop never took to route racing, where energy must be conserved in the race's early stages for a stretch run. Chop Chop ran okay several times in routes, but he did as much wrestling with his rider as he did productive running.

"He's just one of those horses that's hard to rate and relax," said Andrew Ney, who trains Chop Chop for Oakwood Stable. "He always wanted to go straight to the front."

Finally, Ney scrapped the route racing idea. Chop Chop turned back to sprints late last fall and he has shown a surprising turn of early foot in two sprint starts.

"We tried to rate him the first time, and [jockey] Curt Bourque said to go ahead and let this one roll. So we just let him go," Ney said.

The strategy - or lack thereof - brought out the best in Chop Chop, who ran perhaps the best race of his 12-race career when he won a second-level allowance sprint by almost three lengths here on Dec. 26.

Now, Chop Chop takes his newfound speed to the next level when he faces six opponents on Friday in the featured ninth race at Fair Grounds, a third-level allowance sprint with a $75,000 claiming option.

Now 4, Chop Chop won a one-mile allowance race here in December of his 2-year-old season. At the time, with major 3-year-old route stakes on the horizon, Ney felt he had little choice but to push on with distance racing early last season. "That's where the money is," Ney said.

But if sprinting is what Chop Chop always wanted to do, there is reason to believe he still has upside at this relatively early stage of his career. Gold Taker, Stanislas, and Ole Rebel are entered here and could be early speed rivals, but if able to shake clear early Chop Chop might be able to win again.

Ole Rebel is logical alternative since he missed winning a third-level allowance sprint by a neck here on Dec. 8. In a turf sprint three weeks later, Ole Rebel appeared to struggle with the unfamiliar racing surface. Now back on dirt and with a favorable outside post, he should make his presence felt.

Mapp Hill won the Sugar Bowl here last meet, but makes his first start since April. Gold Taker was no match for Ole Rebel in his last start, but his entrymate, Golden Arm, is a stretch-running threat here.

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