03/01/2004 12:00AM

Cripple Creek looks difficult to catch

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Cripple Creek deserved a better fate than having to settle for second behind Skier's Gift in his local debut earlier in the Gulfstream Park meet. A repeat of that effort should reward Cripple Creek with a well-deserved trip to the winner's circle when he returns under similar entry-level allowance conditions in Wednesday's $34,000 feature race.

engaged in a race-long battle with the 4-5 Skier's Gift while coming off a six-month layoff on Jan. 21. The pair raced as a team until deep stretch, at which point Skier's Gift gradually asserted his superiority and edged off to a half-length victory. The two leaders so dominated the race it was another 6 1/2 lengths back to Call Me Pete.

Skier's Gift is the latest in a line of talented and speedy competitors Cripple Creek has faced during a career that has been interrupted on several occasions. Cripple Creek made only two starts in 2003 but wound up facing such horses as Pick'em and More Heck at Belmont Park.

Trainer Willard Freeman returned Cripple Creek to the farm in Aiken, S.C., following his impressive south Florida debut and wisely gave the 5-year-old ample time off to recuperate from the taxing performance. Cripple Creek worked a pair of strong half-miles within an eight-day span late last month and figures to stand some catching if he breaks cleanly in this five-furlong race from his inside post.

is another New York invader who kept some pretty good company last season. He sandwiched an easy maiden win between strong albeit losing efforts behind Canadian Frontier and Formal Attire, both of whom have already registered allowance victories here this winter.

Eavesdropper has not started since finishing fifth as the even-money favorite going seven furlongs at Belmont on Oct. 24 and may need some help with the pace if he's to run down the speed while launching his campaign.

Belichick and Rich as Croesus could both give Cripple Creek an early run for his money. Belichick turns back in distance and returns to the main track after an unsuccessful turf debut in which he engaged in a speed duel with well-meant European import Safe From Harm.

Rich as Croesus survived a pace battle before edging clear to a two-length victory to finally win his maiden after several strong but unsuccessful efforts earlier in the meet and at Calder.