10/21/2004 12:00AM

Empire Classic edge to youth

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ELMONT, N.Y. - West Virginia and Chowder's First are 3-year-olds who look like they have an edge on their older rivals in Saturday's $250,000 Empire Classic on New York Showcase Day at Belmont Park.

The Empire Classic is one of seven stakes for statebreds on New York Showcase Day card.

A full field of 14, plus an also eligible, entered the 1 1/8-mile Empire Classic. The Empire Classic is the finale on a 10-race program and the final leg of a $400,000 guaranteed pick four.

In the last 10 runnings of the Empire Classic, four 3-year-olds have won.

When West Virginia and Chowder's First last met, it was at Saratoga in a division of the New York Stallion Stakes. Chowder's First won, beating West Virginia by a neck.

missed the Albany because of a respiratory illness. Phil Serpe, Chowder's First's trainer, returned the colt on Oct. 11 in a seven-furlong race, which he won by 2 1/2 lengths.

"It's a little close back, but I had no other option and we wanted to get a race into him," Serpe said.

Edgar Prado rides Chowder's First, who is 3 for 3 at Belmont.

West Virginia, who won his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths on last year's Showcase card, worked in company Sunday with the Breeders' Cup Sprint contender Speightstown, and finished on near even terms with him.

Todd Pletcher, West Virginia's trainer, said his colt is training very well. "A mile and an eighth is a good fit for him," he said.

John Velazquez rides West Virginia from post 6.

Rogue Agent is the co-highweight at 119 pounds with Sherpa Guide and Spite the Devil.

Rogue Agent makes his first start for trainer Richard Schosberg. Rogue Agent's form took a nosedive in the summer, but some of his earlier races this year, for his former trainer Mike Brice, were quite good. He hasn't run since July 25.

"He certainly fits at his best; the question is, do I have him at his best off the layoff," Schosberg said.

Sherpa Guide seeks his first win since July 2002. His trainer, Tom Bush, believes the gelding can snap his losing streak in the Empire Classic.

"If there is enough speed in the race and he gets a good trip and closes strongly, he can win it," Bush said.

There should be enough speed to suit both Sherpa Guide and closer Board Elligible, a filly who is coming off two efforts in Grade 1 company.