12/05/2002 1:00AM

Ex-claimer 'Matt' tops eclectic field

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HOUSTON - The melting-pot effect that the creators of the Great State Challenge hoped to achieve might be more in evidence in the Sprint than in any of the other five stakes to be run Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park.

The Sprint drew a field of eight that could have been nine if not for the defection of the California-based Disturbing-thepeace, who was declared earlier in the week because of a minor hoof ailment. Even without him, the Sprint has top contenders coming from Kentucky, Florida, Maryland, Illinois, and New York.

It is the New York-based horse, My Cousin Matt, who could become a slight favorite in the six-furlong Sprint. A 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding, My Cousin Matt was racing mostly in turf routes before owner Richard Englander claimed him for $85,000 from a Sept. 25 sprint at Belmont. In two subsequent starts for trainer Scott Lake, the gelding has won a second-level allowance at Belmont and finished a close second in a $150,000 stakes at Calder.

"We've kind of gotten lucky with him," said Englander, "but that's the sort of thing we look for, to try to maximize a horse's ability by putting him in the right spots. We thought he was more a dirt sprinter than a turf router."

Day Trader, a Kentucky-bred trained by D. Wayne Lukas, probably is the top challenger to My Cousin Matt. Day Trader won the Kentucky Cup Sprint to earn a 108 Beyer Speed Figure in September, then finished second to Xtra Heat in the Phoenix Stakes before being overmatched in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"He's trained right along since the Breeders' Cup," said assistant trainer Mike Maker.

Dash for Daylight is another Kentucky-bred with solid credentials, having finished in the money in 18 of 20 career starts for trainer Elliott Walden. He most recently ran a solid third behind graded stakes winner Booklet in a Nov. 19 allowance at Churchill Downs.

Tic N Tin, an Illinois-bred who has won 24 of 67 starts and nearly $665,000, figures to be a major pace factor from his outside post.

Deer Run, a Maryland-bred, recently finished second behind D'wildcat in the Grade 1 De Francis Memorial, a solid commendation on its own. Deer Run figures to benefit most if the pace is too swift.

The rest of the Sprint field is Royal Lad (Florida), Le Numerous (Iowa), and Won C C (Texas).

The Sprint goes as the fifth of 10 races.