07/08/2005 12:00AM

Clearly troubled

Big Prairie nearly won last month's Jefferson Cup despite being blocked in the stretch.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Trip handicappers were likely falling all over themselves after watching Big Prairie run second in last month's Grade 3 Jefferson Cup at Churchill Downs. Blocked for about an eighth of a mile in the stretch, Big Prairie finally got clear inside the furlong marker and closed with a flourish to finish a neck behind favored Rush Bay.

Those wanting to bet Big Prairie back may do so in Sunday's Grade 3, $100,000 Lexington Stakes at Belmont Park, though likely at less attractive odds than the 5-1 he was in the Jefferson Cup.

, a son of Danzig trained by Rusty Arnold, heads a field of seven runners set to negotiate the 1 1/4 miles of Belmont's inner turf course. First Word was entered in case the race is moved to the dirt.

Big Prairie was talented enough to win his debut at Gulfstream, showing a strong kick to win by a half-length. The third-place finisher from that race, Scalator, has come back to win his next two races.

In his first start against winners, Big Prairie finished fourth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by the stakes winner Interpatation, while encountering traffic trouble in the stretch.

"He won his first start without learning anything but in the allowance race he learned a lot that day,'' Arnold said. "He raced in traffic, got bumped around on the rail where there was not a lot of room, and when he had room he was not experienced enough to take it. In the Jefferson Cup, he did everything right. He waited, waited, and waited, and when he wanted to go he had nowhere to go. He almost had to go backwards to get out.''

Arnold is confident Big Prairie will be able to handle the distance and said any lingering moisture in the turf should also benefit his horse.

and Woodlander look like the major challengers to Big Prairie. Prince Rahy lugged in while closing strongly when beaten a nose by the Arnold-trained Rey de Cafe in the Grade 3 Hill Prince.

Woodlander, who figures to lay close to a pedestrian pace, has won his last two at nine furlongs, beating older horses both times. He has improved greatly with the switch to turf and to a stalk-and-finish running style.

Im Spartacus, a Group 3 winner in Ireland, is the 123-pound highweight.