05/31/2002 11:00PM

Dueling fillies top card

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Few if any 3-year-old fillies have made a stronger impression in Chicago this year than Cades Cove and Pass the Pepper. Which one is the better sprinter? Monday's first race at Hawthorne will furnish an answer.

Pass the Pepper, Cades Cove, and four other horses were entered in the second-level allowance race, which will be run at six furlongs. Combine the first race with several other allowance and maiden races, and you'll find one of the best top-to-bottom programs offered during this brief meet.

The match-up between Cades Cove and Pass the Pepper is intriguing. The Illinois-bred Cades Cove ran poorly in a pair of starts last summer, but was compromised by physical problems at the time, and came back from an extended layoff to easily win a pair of races at Sportsman's Park. She beat statebred maidens by almost 14 lengths, running a fast time, then returned to beat open company by more than four lengths, again showing good early foot and a solid stretch punch.

But how much has Cades Cove beaten? There was not much to the Illinois-bred maiden field, and Cades Cove met only three rivals and was permitted to dictate a moderate pace in her last start. Moreover, it remains to be seen if her form at Sportsman's, a track which favors inside speed, transfers to a different racing surface. She has, however, worked very quickly at Hawthorne, turning in two bullet breezes last month for trainer Tom Dorris.

Pass the Pepper also won at Sportsman's, despite breaking from post 12 in her career debut, then returned five weeks later to beat a first-level Hawthorne allowance field by four lengths.

"She's maturing now, and she's done everything we've asked," said Michelle Boyce, who trains and co-owns Pass the Pepper. "I just hope she can take that next step."

Boyce hopes Pass the Pepper will stretch out to two turns, but with no route race available for her filly, Boyce must be content running back in another sprint.

With Cades Cove and other speed breaking to her inside, Monday would be a good time for Pass the Pepper to prove she can rate and rally. "This might be a good time to take her off the pace," Boyce said.

* Tuesday is the final day of Thoroughbred racing at this Hawthorne meet, which spanned only 23 racing dates. Thoroughbred racing picks up at Arlington on Wednesday, while Hawthorne will host 37 straight days of harness racing beginning Friday.