04/14/2003 11:00PM

Christmas Away presses on

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you missed the latest two-turn grass stakes for 3-year-olds in Kentucky, just wait a bit. The next one should be right around the corner.

Indeed, only 13 days after the Transylvania Stakes helped open the Keeneland meet, here comes the $100,000 Forerunner, a 1 1/8-mile turf race that, except for distance, essentially replicates the conditions of the one-mile Transylvania. In case that's not enough, the Crown Royal American Turf is at Churchill Downs only 15 days after the Forerunner.

The close proximity of those races means that few horses, if any, will run in all three, although Christmas Away will be two-thirds of the way there when he runs Thursday with Pat Day aboard in the Forerunner.

Christmas Away finished a fast-closing third in the Transylvania behind White Cat and Deep Shadow, both of whom are bypassing the Forerunner to await the May 2 Crown Royal. Christmas Away, said his trainer Pat Byrne, "should love the extra distance. He ran a good race last out and came back good. Plus we've still got Pat Day."

Byrne still trains Christmas Away despite the sale of the colt after the Transylvania. Elmon Gray bought Christmas Away from former owners Tony Bowling and Charles Thompson.

Hypnotist, the Transylvania pacesetter, and Rapid Proof, winner of the Hopemont last fall, are the only other Transylvania holdovers among the nine 3-year-olds entered in the Forerunner. One other Forerunner contender also ran opening day: Hot Hand, who won the opening-day finale, an entry-level turf allowance, replaces Deep Shadow for the D. Wayne Lukas stable.

Like so many Lukas horses in the spring, Hot Hand has come alive since returning to Kentucky. After a slow start, Lukas once again is in contention for the Keeneland training title, which he has won or shared at nine previous spring meets. Last weekend, Lukas sent out three winners here: Desert Warrior, Shah Jehan, and Fashion Girl.

The Forerunner, once a minor Kentucky Derby prep on dirt, was moved to the turf in 1986. The connections of the 2002 winner, Red Masque, tried to run him back in the Derby but were excluded on earnings.

- White Cat breezed an easy half-mile in 52.60 seconds over a fast Churchill main track Tuesday, staying fit for the Crown Royal.

"I've tried to dance all the dances before, and it's hard to do," McPeek said.