10/25/2001 11:00PM

Dawn Watcher coming to hand just in time

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - In recent years, the Sky Classic Handicap has served as the major local prep for the Canadian International.

But when the International was moved forward on the Woodbine stakes calendar this year, the Niagara assumed the prep role for the International, and the Sky Classic was scheduled for late in the meeting.

That turn of events could not have been more fortuitous for Dawn Watcher, an up-and-coming 3-year-old who will be seeking his third straight turf win here in Sunday's Sky Classic.

The Grade 2 Sky Classic, a 1 3/8-mile turf race for 3-year-olds and up, has attracted a field of 10 and will offer a purse of $169,500.

Dawn Watcher, owned by D. Morgan Firestone and trained by Cliff Hopmans, is a gelding by Numerous out of the Grey Dawn II mare Dawnelo. After winning his maiden in his first start around two turns here May 21, Dawn Watcher finished seventh in the Queen's Plate.

And while he rebounded to win his next start and run two more good races on the main track, including a third-place finish in the restricted Elgin Stakes, he has been a horse of a different color on the grass.

"He's a nice horse on the dirt, but there's no question he moves up many lengths on the turf," said Hopmans. "We'd always wanted to try him on the grass, and when we saw Numerous Times win the Atto Mile that was the clincher.

"The Numerouses seem to be popping out of nowhere and running well on the grass. It was the logical decision for us to make."

Dawn Watcher made his turf debut here Sept. 29 in a second-level allowance over seven furlongs of firm going, and rallied smartly for a 2 3/4-length victory with David Clark in the irons. Eight days later, competing at the next level over 1 1/16 miles on a course labeled yielding, Dawn Watcher was prominent throughout and drew off for a three-length score under new rider Gary Boulanger.

"Since we've had him on the grass, he's been more of a professional horse to work with," said Hopmans. "He's been a high-energy type but he seems mellower on turf."

Hopmans acknowledges that the Sky Classic distance is "a definite question mark" for Dawn Watcher, but hopes Dawn Watcher's disposition and style will lend itself to the route.

"He is ratable," said the trainer. "He seems to be kind of a push-button horse."

Strike Smartly, a lightly raced 4-year-old who has shown marked improvement since switching his focus to turf racing this year, enters the Sky Classic off a last-to-first finish in the allowance prep over 1 1/4 miles. Before that, he finished third behind invaders Honor Glide and Royal Strand in the Grade 2 Niagara Breeders' Cup.

Strike Smartly is trained by Mark Frostad, who trained Chief Bearhart, the Sky Classic winner in 1997 and 1998. Strike Smartly will run in a Sam-Son Farm entry with Sky Chariot, who finished fourth in the 2000 Sky Classic.

Two for Attfield

Trainer Roger Attfield, who trained last year's Sky Classic one-two finishers, Muntej and Free Vacation, this year will be represented by the coupling of Red Sea and Free Vacation.

Red Sea, a 5-year-old gelding who races for Newgate Stud, has been a disappointment since winning the Connaught Cup in his local debut this May.

Free Vacation, a 5-year-old mare owned by Attfield in partnership with Mickey Canino and Bill Werner, is coming off a ninth-place finish in the Grade 1 E.P. Taylor and is slated to sell at the upcoming Keeneland sale.

Long time between drinks

Dawson's Legacy, winner of the 1999 Sky Classic for owner Joseph Stritzl, will be seeking his first win since then in Sunday's running.

A 6-year-old gelding, Dawson's Legacy finished ninth after setting the early pace in the Sept. 30 Canadian International, three weeks after running a close seventh in the Atto Mile.

Ramsammy suspended, fined

Emile Ramsammy will sit out the Wednesday through Friday cards here this week after losing an appeal before the Ontario Racing Commission.

The stewards had suspended Ramsammy for striking his mount, Muhayaa's Crown, on the head during the stretch run of the fifth race here July 2. The Ontario Racing Industry Board of Appeal upheld the ruling and the jockey then took the appeal to the ORC.

Ramsammy also was fined $1,000 for failing to appear as a witness at the ORC appeal hearing of jockey Gary Boulanger, who lost his case and has served a three-day suspension.