02/28/2002 12:00AM

Fresh and 'ready to kill'


ARCADIA, Calif. - The unlikely success story of Freedom Crest could add another unfathomable chapter should he win Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

Freedom Crest already has been an overachiever. Taken from a maiden race for a claiming price of $32,000 in June 1999, Freedom Crest has gone on to earn more than $600,000. A 6-year-old gelding, he has won a pair of graded stakes, and scored a shocking 39-1 upset in last fall's Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap, when he beat Tiznow, who subsequently won the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Freedom Crest ran in the Classic, too. Sort of. Mired in the outside post in the field of 13, he never got into the race, and finished last. On Saturday, he makes his first start since then, as trainer Richard Baltas tries to pull off a feat accomplished by the likes of people named Charlie Whittingham, who brought Greinton off a three-month layoff to win the 1 1/4-mile Big Cap.

"I don't think I'm Whittingham or anything," Baltas said Thursday morning from Hollywood Park, where he is based. "I just know I have a fit horse who runs well fresh. He's ready to kill somebody right now. I could have run him in a race a few weeks ago, like Futural or Sky Jack, but it would be coming back quick for him. My horse is not like that."

Although Freedom Crest trains at Hollywood Park, his greatest success has been at Santa Anita. In addition to the Goodwood, he also won last year's San Pasqual Handicap. In 10 starts at Santa Anita, he has been out of the money just once.

Last summer, Freedom Crest returned from a five-month layoff to finish a close second in Hollywood Park's Bel Air Handicap. He was freshened anew for the Goodwood, which was his first start in 2 1/2 months. And after his Breeders' Cup debacle, he was freshened again.

"He lays everything out when he runs," Baltas said. "After the Breeders' Cup, I gave him a month on a farm that Laura Cotter runs. He's ready to run now. I'll blow him out Friday, ship that morning, school him Friday afternoon at Santa Anita, jog him Saturday morning, and run."

Freedom Crest is one of 14 horses entered in a contentious Big Cap. Despite the large field, his odds are probably going to be lower than his price in the Goodwood, when he was given little chance of beating both Tiznow and Skimming.

"I didn't think he could win," Baltas admitted. "But I didn't want to ship out of town, and I knew the horse was ready. He showed he was a better horse than even I thought he was. I mean, I think he's a good horse, but I didn't think he could beat Tiznow. He was ready to run, and third- or fourth-place money in that race would have been good."

The Breeders' Cup Classic was seemingly a wasted trip for Freedom Crest; he never fired. But even in hindsight, Baltas is glad he made the trip, simply for peace of mind.

"He had earned his way to the Breeders' Cup," Baltas said. "When you consider that Tiznow won the race, if I didn't go, I'd have felt like an idiot."

Late Saturday afternoon, if Freedom Crest is standing in the winner's circle, Baltas would be right to feel like genius.