01/29/2003 1:00AM

Early Flyer fit despite layoff

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NEW ORLEANS - Early Flyer's best form is very stale since it has been close to two years since he won a race. But in his youth, Early Flyer had some ability, and he has been working like a machine at Fair Grounds in January. Friday could be the day the 5-year-old Early Flyer gets his career back on track.

Early Flyer faces seven opponents in a third-level sprint allowance with a $75,000 claiming option. The field is solid, but doesn't contain any giants, considering who Early Flyer raced against the last two years - horses such as Xtra Heat, Crafty C.T., D'wildcat, and Delaware Township.

Early Flyer, a Verne Winchell homebred based in Southern California for most of his career, raced here last March in the Pelleteri Breeders' Cup Handicap, finishing sixth. He didn't start again until late August, running second in an Arlington allowance race. Friday marks his return and first start since Jeff Thornbury took over Early Flyer's training for the Winchell Family Trust.

"I got him in the fall," Thornbury said. "He has some issues with his feet, and we've been working pretty hard with that. He's doing well right now. I hate to say this, but I'm not sure he's a true sprinter. We're looking at running him a mile, but with the long stretch at Fair Grounds he might be okay."

Thornbury is correct in noting that Early Flyer could be best in races of seven furlongs and beyond. In six six-furlong races he has finished second four times and never won. But keep in mind, Early Flyer finished second at this distance in the Grade 1 De Francis Memorial Dash.

Even at six furlongs, Early Flyer outclasses Friday's type of opponent, provided he runs his race. Three bullet workouts here - including five furlongs in 59.80 seconds - suggest Early Flyer is ready.

"Calvin Borel has worked him the last four times," Thornbury said. "They've pretty much been sparkling works."

The horse to beat is one of the horses in for the $75,000 claiming tag - Aloha Bold, who won a turf sprint at this class level here about two weeks ago, in his first start for a claiming price.

"He made the decision for us that that's where he needed to run," trainer Tom Amoss said. "I tend to believe that he's a little better on turf than dirt, but this was the race that was available to us, and he's not going to sit in the barn."

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