05/07/2002 11:00PM

Free of Love's a stakes winner

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Trainer Rick Violette said he was losing sleep, having not won a stakes with Free of Love. Violette must have slept like a baby Wednesday night.

Making his 10th start in a stakes, Free of Love finally got the job done, rallying three wide on the turn and holding off a game Dayton Flyer through the stretch to win the $112,500, Grade 3 Westchester Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths on opening day at Belmont Park. It was another length back to Country Be Gold in third.

A crowd of 7,147 ushered in the first of 55 cards at Belmont. That was up slightly from the 7,052 who attended the spring opener in 2001. Ontrack handle was down to $1,396,248 from $1,554,855 last year. Total handle on opening day was $8,837,212, compared with $9,270,178 last year.

A lot of money was wagered on Free of Love, who was sent off the 2-1 favorite in the nine-horse Westchester.

With Jerry Bailey up, and blinkers on for the first time, Free of Love split horses five furlongs out, made the lead turning for home, and held off Dayton Flyer, who was part of the fast early pace.

Free of Love covered the mile in 1:35.56 and returned $6.80.

"He put him on the bridle five-eighths of a mile out to split horses, and he stayed on the bridle - he had a pretty long, sustained effort,'' said Violette, who trains Free of Love for Anthony Aprilante and Ralph Evans. "[Bailey] was pretty happy with him.''

Violette said he was not sure where Free of Love would run next, but will nominate him to the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap on May 27.

Volponi sharp in return

Volponi, last year's Grade 2 Pegasus Handicap winner, made an eye-catching 4-year-old debut Wednesday, winning a seven-furlong allowance race by a length over Cherokee Beau. Ommadon, the 2000 Nashua winner, finished last in the field of five.

Under Shaun Bridgmohan, Volponi stalked the pacesetting Tarek through splits of 23.62 and 45.47 seconds before taking over in upper stretch. He covered seven furlongs in 1:22.40 and returned $3.70 to win. It was Volponi's first start since finishing fourth in the Cigar Mile last Nov. 24.

Trainer Phil Johnson said he would like to run Volponi next in the Metropolitan.