07/01/2002 11:00PM

Firecracker foes try to catch Morluc

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A hot pace, an explosive rally, and a bang-bang finish. Any or all of these scenarios could result Thursday at Churchill Downs, where a terrific field of 11 older horses could dare to take the Firecracker Handicap and the Fourth of July holiday almost literally.

Morluc, a world-traveled turf sprinter, most likely will attempt to lead the entire one-mile distance of the Grade 2 Firecracker, so most handicappers will focus on if, or when, any of his rivals can run him down. Good Journey, the 118-pound topweight, is a logical candidate to come calling, but then so is Strut the Stage, Touch of the Blues, or any of another handful of starters.

Good Journey, who shipped in from California to win an allowance prep here last month, is back again for Wally Dollase, who has been extremely pleased with how the 6-year-old horse has progressed.

"I gave him a prep over the track, and [jockey] Pat [Day] said he was impressed with how he went," said Dollase.

Good Journey, by Nureyev out of the mare Chimes of Freedom, "is one of the best-bred horses around, so I'm looking for as many good spots in Grade 2's and Grade 1's that I can find for him."

Dollase said a mile "is a perfect distance" for Good Journey. But for Strut the Stage, a Canadian standout trained by Mark Frostad, the Firecracker represents a turn-back from longer races, so the colt likely will have to make a torrid late run to prevail. Strut the Stage most recently finished third behind Beat Hollow in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap.

Likewise, Touch of the Blues, who traveled here Tuesday from California with Good Journey, will have to rally from well back. That is exactly what occurred when Touch of the Blues won the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland in April, the last time the horse raced in Kentucky.

One of several viable longshot possibilities is Dernier Croise, a durable veteran who owns five career wins over the Churchill turf course.

"Obviously he likes the surface," said trainer David Carroll. "Plus I couldn't get him in any allowance races lately, so we thought it was worth taking a shot Thursday."

The rest of the Firecracker field is Moon Solitaire, Even the Score, Grampas, Pyrus, Classic Par, and Aly's Alley.

The Firecracker is the 10th of 11 races on a card that also includes three allowance races.

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