03/18/2004 12:00AM

'Cruise' is worth second look


River Cruise faded badly in her only start this season, a six-furlong race against optional claimers. Now, a month later, she's being asked to last 1 1/8 miles while rising in class. Her trainer, Larry Murray, is still looking for his first win of 2004.

Although those facts might prompt some to eliminate River Cruise as a contender in Saturday's $50,000 Gala Lil at Laurel Park, handicappers seeking some value in the field of seven older fillies and mares ought to give her a long look.

Murray is a far better trainer than his 0-for-13 record to start the year would indicate. Last season, Murray's horses won 10 of 42 starts in stakes. In 2002, Murray was 13-6-7 with 43 stakes starters.

Adding to River Cruise's appeal is her record at the distance and the circumstances of her poor 2004 debut. She's 2 for 2 at 1 1/8 miles, winning a pair of races restricted to Maryland-breds last year, the Twixt and the Maryland Million Oaks.

On Feb. 15, River Cruise pressed the pace for a half-mile on a day when front-runners were hindered by a severe headwind at Aqueduct. She also raced wide when the two inside paths were much the best part of the inner track.

Factor in Murray's 40-percent hit rate (6 for 15) with horses making the second start of their form cycle and his 27-percent success (3 for 11) with runners going from sprints to routes, and it's clear River Cruise is a live longshot.

The logical favorites are Undercover and Friel's for Real, who ran one-two in the nine-furlong Maryland Racing Media Handicap on Feb. 21. Undercover, who easily won last year's Gala Lil as the heavy favorite, must carry seven more pounds (122) than she did in her 1 1/2-length win over Friel's for Real.

Ryan Fogelsonger picks up the mount on Undercover because her usual jockey, Mario Pino, will be in New York riding Among My Souvenirs in the Grade 3 Cicada at Aqueduct.

"It looks there is a lot of speed in the race, so I think she'll be able to sit pretty much where she wants," Fogelsonger said. "I'm going to try to give her the best trip possible, and if that happens she'll probably get it done."

City Fire, who won a three-horse photo with Sweet Dynamite and Undercover two starts ago in the Nellie Morse, and Shiny Sheet, who finished four lengths ahead of Undercover in December's Geisha Handicap, both return to two turns after sprinting unsuccessfully in the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie Handicap.