12/30/2001 1:00AM

Freespool after 3rd consecutive El Conejo win


ARCADIA, Calif. - Freespool can start the 2002 racing season in Southern California with a milestone victory in Tuesday's $100,000 El Conejo Handicap at Santa Anita.

A 6-year-old, Freespool is attempting to win the El Conejo for the third consecutive running. Such an accomplishment has not been achieved in Southern California since Track Gal won the Rancho Bernardo Handicap at Del Mar from 1995-97.

Part of Freespool's success can be attributed to light campaigns of six starts each in both 2000 and 2001. Trained by Ted H. West for Desperado Stable, Freespool had a better year in 2001, winning the Phoenix Gold Cup, Oakland, and Pirate's Bounty handicaps and earning $187,987.

Freespool won two 2000 runnings of the El Conejo, which that year was run in January and on Dec. 31.

Throughout his career, Freespool has had one style - speed, setting a torrid pace and holding on as long as possible. The El Conejo distance of 5 1/2 furlongs is perfectly suited to his style, whereas six-furlong races can sometimes be too far.

Freespool will have company in Tuesday's race. Explicit, Gibson County, and Snow Ridge have shown ample speed in recent starts. The opening quarter-mile is likely to be closer to 21 seconds than 22.

D. Wayne Lukas has two starters - Snow Ridge and Unbridled Time. Snow Ridge led throughout in the Kentucky Cup Sprint last September at Turfway Park but was a disappointing fifth in the Gravesend Handicap at Aqueduct on Dec. 15.

"When Snow Ridge gets away good, he's as fast as anyone's horse," Lukas said.

There are plenty of closers capable of winning if the pace is too hot. The stalker Rio Oro is hoping to repeat his win in the California Cup Starter Sprint Handicap over 5 1/2 furlongs. He does not need the lead to win, but has never faced a field of this depth.

Ceeband and Stormy Jack, the first two finishers of the California Cup Sprint on Nov. 3, would be ideally suited by a fast pace. Stormy Jack returned to win two races over 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park, including the On Trust Handicap over Ceeband on Nov. 22.

Ceeband is not a definite starter, according to trainer John Sadler, who said a decision will be made on race day. "I can excuse him getting beat once," Sadler said of the On Trust result. "He was topweight and there was no pace."

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