07/02/2004 12:00AM

Fircroft tries to turn back the clock

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OCEANPORT, N. J. - Fircroft, one of seven entered in Sunday's Grade 2, $300,000 Molly Pitcher Breeders' Cup Handicap at Monmouth Park, has become a bit of an enigma for her trainer, Rusty Arnold. She finished second in both the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan and the Grade 1 Coaching Club America Oaks as a 3-year-old last year but, for the most part, she has been a disappointment in 2004.

"She did quite a bit as a 3-year-old," said Arnold, "but she hasn't run the way she's capable of since her first start of this year."

That first start back, which came in a two-other-than allowance race after a layoff of nearly seven months, resulted in a two-length win and a 90 Beyer, her best figure since running second in the Black-Eyed Susan. It seemed to suggest that this would be a banner year for her.

"That race went just the way we wanted," said Arnold, "but her last couple haven't been what we wanted at all."

Since her return, Fircroft has lost three straight, including her latest, an optional claimer here. She finished a non-threatening third as the 3-5 betting favorite, rallying a bit late.

"I can't really explain why she's been flat," he said.

Since that subpar effort came on the heels of the worst effort of her career, an eighth-place finish in the restricted White Carnation Stakes, it's a bit of a surprise that Arnold is choosing to run her back just two weeks later in the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher.

"We weren't going to run in the Molly Pitcher but she came out of her last race so well, and then we worked her and she was so enthusiastic, we figured we'd take a shot with her," he said.

Arnold seems cautiously optimistic that Fircroft will rebound on Sunday. "We blew her out a little closer to the race this time," he said, referring to her three-furlong breeze on Wednesday, "and the mile and an eighth is more her kind of race."

Tangier Sound's long wait over

Trainer Jim Ryerson had to bide his time with Tangier Sound, one of the East's leading turf sprinting mares.

Ryerson wanted to run early in the Monmouth meet but Tangier Sound was scratched when the Thomas J. Malley Stakes on Memorial Day was shifted to the main track.

A stakes spot didn't come around again until the next major holiday - July 4 - with the $60,000 Betsy Ross Stakes at five furlongs on the grass.

"There just wasn't anywhere to run," said Ryerson.

Not that Ryerson didn't try. He looked for an another stakes or a money-allowance spot but nothing materialized.

"We had to wait for this race," said Ryerson.

Tangier Sound will be a fresh horse coming into the Betsy Ross. She has run only twice this year in a campaign that began with a nose defeat in the Mamzelle Stakes at Churchill Downs at the end of April.

Tangier Sound's last start was a fifth-place finish in The Very One Stakes at Pimlico on May 14, some seven weeks ago.

Ryerson does not view the layoff as an issue.

"She should be okay," said Ryerson. "She's worked steadily."

And swiftly, especially in the last two breezes. Tangier Sound earned a bullet with a five-furlong drill in 1:00.60 on June 20 and came back with a four-furlong work in 47.80 seconds - the second fastest of the 55 that morning - seven days later.

Tangier Sound dead-heated for second in last year's Betsy Ross, setting the pace before giving way to Oh Say Vicki, who returns for a repeat bid. Oh Say Vicki was cross-entered in a five-furlong turf stakes at Colonial Downs on Saturday.

Tangier Sound has won 7 of 24 career starts and banked $226,970, primarily in similar spots. She won three five-furlong grass stakes last year: the Jenny Wade Handicap at Penn National, the Klassy Briefcase at Monmouth, and the Witches' Brew at The Meadowlands.

Ryerson feels the division has gotten tougher this year, making stakes wins more difficult.

"I think the division is a little deep," said Ryerson. "There are more of them."

Tim Hills, one of leading proponents of turf sprints, agrees.

"These have gotten really tough," said Hills. "They come from all over the place."

Hills will run Melody of Colors in the Betsy Ross. She won the Bob Slater Stakes at five furlongs on the grass at Gulfstream Park in April.

She was most recently second in a turf sprint at Atlantic City Race Course, a race in which Melody of Colors battled a bias, said Hills.

"It was speed favoring and she had an outside post," said Hills. "They just cut the corner and got away from her."

While Tangier Sound is usually committed to the lead, Melody of Colors offers more options.

"What I like about her is her versatility," said Hills. "She can go to the lead or stalk and [Eibar] Coa rides her with a lot of confidence."

- additional reporting by Mike Farrell