01/15/2004 12:00AM

Favorites face pace problem

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There appears to be little pace in Saturday night's $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup Handicap at Sam Houston Race Park, and that could impact the running styles of leading contenders Sir Cherokee and Freefourinternet.

Both are closers, but could find themselves in contention early if the fractions are slow. And if the pace does dawdle, Parrott Bay, who appears to be the lone speed, is a threat to go a long way on the lead.

The 1 1/8-mile Maxxam is the richest of three stakes on a program designed to complement the Texas Thoroughbred Association's annual awards banquet at Sam Houston. The other races are the $40,000 Sam Houston Distaff and the $40,000 Sam Houston Sprint Handicap.

Sir Cherokee is looking for his third straight win, following scores in the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby last April and an optional claimer at Churchill Downs in November. He is fresh, coming in off a six-week layoff, and he is on his toes, having worked a bullet five furlongs Jan. 5.

Whether that freshness and a potential slow pace puts him in contention earlier than usual remains to be seen, said his trainer, Mike Tomlinson.

"We're not going to try to change his running style," he said. "We know of one speed horse in the race, and hope something will go with him to set a pace for us to run at. Those are things that are out of your control."

Tomlinson likes where Sir Cherokee is now. "Physically he's matured, and grown up quite a bit," he said. "He's training very well."

So is Freefourinternet. "He's been training super," said Joan Scott, who trains the horse for Ron Peltz. "He's really training aggressively."

Freefourinternet, whose win in the Grade 2 Kelso at Belmont Park last October sent him to the Breeders' Cup Mile, rallied for fourth in a paceless $60,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap at Fair Grounds on Jan. 3, his last start. Before that race, he won an off-the-turf optional claimer, which put him under consideration for the Maxxam.

Robby Albarado has the mount on Freefourinternet, the 119-pound highweight, while Terry Thompson will ride Sir Cherokee, who is weighted at 118.

The eight-horse field for the Maxxam also includes Private Emblem, winner of the 2002 running of the Arkansas Derby; Leo's Last Hurrahy, who is in sharp form for trainer Bob Young; Dusty Spike, a three-time stakes winner last year; Maysville Slew; and Most Feared.