08/02/2005 11:00PM

Crown's third jewel up for grabs, Ross takes shot with Stephen's Gift

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Trainer John Ross and jockey Steven Bahen conjured up a Breeders' Stakes victory with John the Magician here in 1997.

Ross and Bahen hope to pull another surprise package out of the hat at Woodbine on Sunday when Stephen's Gift, who will be trying turf for the first time, starts in the $500,000 Breeders' over 1 1/2 miles.

The Breeders' is the third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, following Woodbine's 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate and Fort Erie's 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales. But with the Queen's Plate winner, Wild Desert, pointing for Saratoga's Travers and the Prince of Wales winner, Ablo, also looking elsewhere, the Breeders' figures to be lacking in star quality.

Ross had entered Stephen's Gift in a first-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles here last Sunday, then took a long look at the Breeders' nominees and decided to change course.

"I took him out of the allowance to wait for the Breeders'," said Ross.

Stephen's Gift debuted May 27 and has raced four times, winning his maiden over 1 1/16 miles here July 2 and then finishing fifth in the Prince of Wales in his next and most recent start.

"I know he can do better," said Ross. "That was a speed-favoring, heavy, greasy track. If he likes the turf a little bit, he might have a shot in there."

Ross had hoped to get a handle on how Stephen's Gift might handle the grass on Wednesday, seeking permission to work the gelding over the course. But the recent rains scotched that plan, and Stephen's Gift prepped over the muddy training track, going five furlongs under Bahen in 1:01.60.

While Stephen's Gift may get a chance to gallop on the E.P. Taylor course Friday, his predilection for grass may well remain a mystery until showtime on Sunday.

"There's no real science to it," said Ross. "They either like it or they don't.

"I know he'll like the distance. He just keeps going and going, all day long."

Area Limits breezes

Area Limits, one of the leading candidates for the Breeders' despite being a maiden after eight starts, worked five furlongs in 1:02.40 on a yielding turf training course under regular rider Jim McAleney here Wednesday.

"We breezed him on the outside of the course," said trainer Roger Attfield. "I thought he could have gone a little better, but he was on his own. He gets a bit lazy."

Area Limits comes into the Breeders' after finishing a troubled third and being promoted to the second spot in the Toronto Cup, an open 1 1/8 mile turf race for 3-year-olds here July 16.

Landry fills in aboard Autumn Snow

Jockey Robert Landry has picked up the mount on Autumn Snow, who is coming off a second-place finish in the Prince of Wales.

Francine Villeneuve, who rode Autumn Snow for the first time in the Prince of Wales, had the return call from trainer Mac Benson but is on the shelf after being injured in a spill at Fort Erie last Sunday.

Autumn Snow had finished fourth here in the Charlie Barley, an open one-mile turf race for 3-year-olds, in his start before the Prince of Wales.

See the Wind may be right back

See the Wind, who finished third against fellow Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies in last Sunday's Wonder Where over 1 1/4 miles on turf, could swing right back in the Breeders'.

"We'll see how she trains the next few days," said Mark Frostad, who trains See the Wind for Sam-Son Farm.

Todd Kabel, See the Wind's regular rider, is slated to ride Welcome Again for Stronach Stable in the Breeders'.

Welcome Again, coming off his maiden win over 1 1/2 miles of muddy going, would have to be supplemented at a cost of $15,000 when entries are taken Friday.

Sophia's Prince a stakes runner again

Sunday's program also will feature the $125,000 Shepperton, a 6 1/2-furlong race for Ontario-sired 3-year-olds and upward.

Among those eagerly anticipating the Shepperton is trainer John LeBlanc, who plans to send out Sophia's Prince for owner Joan Agro.

Sophia's Prince, a 6-year-old gelding, was stakes-placed at ages 3 and 4 but seemed to have lost a step by the end of last year. He was dropped into the claiming ranks and closed out his campaign with a victory for a $45,000.

But Sophia's Prince has taken a new lease on life this season, winning both of his starts, and now he comes into the Shepperton as a candidate meriting much respect.

"He basically had all winter off," said LeBlanc, noting that Sophia's Prince had given him cause for optimism when he returned to the track in mid-March. "He was feeling awfully good, training very sharp. It surprised me, how well he'd wintered. It was very encouraging."

Sophia's Prince returned to action here May 29 and prevailed by a nose under third-level allowance terms at 6 1/2 furlongs.

"I wasn't expecting that much," said LeBlanc. "It was a tough field. He generally sits off the pace and makes a run at them. I just wanted to see him close ground and get a gauge on him. I got a huge gauge. It was an amazing effort.

Following that opener, the Shepperton moved to the top of LeBlanc's playbook for Sophia's Prince, and a seven-furlong classified allowance here June 24 fit into the program. Sophia's Prince scored by a neck and equaled his career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 100 under regular rider Simon Husbands.

"It was another very tough race, and he turned in a supreme effort again," said LeBlanc. "We've just concentrated on coming to this race. He's not a horse who can come back quickly. He runs well fresh. We just refocused to come straight to this race."