12/04/2002 1:00AM

Game on? Deal Englander in


HOUSTON - When someone in the racing game says, "Let's give this a try," it seems that Richard Englander is one of the first to say, "Count me in."

Indeed, during the first four runnings of the Claiming Crown, that made-for-everyman series, no owner has had a higher profile than Englander. Now comes another inventive concept, one that Englander also has been quick to embrace: the Great State Challenge, a made-for-statebreds series that makes its debut Saturday afternoon at Sam Houston Race Park.

Englander, 42, a resident of Scarsdale, N.Y., and a businessman whose huge stable was so successful last year that he was voted the Eclipse Award for top owner, will be represented in the Challenge by favored My Cousin Matt in the Sprint and by Devine Wind in the Turf.

Like so many of his acquisitions, My Cousin Matt was a claim whom Englander believed his primary trainer, Scott Lake, could improve. A 3-year-old colt, My Cousin Matt has been running triple-digit Beyers with regularity while becoming one of the most improved and respected sprinters on the East Coast.

"He's gotten better and better," said Englander. "Of course, we've gotten a little lucky with him, but the main thing is he's more of a dirt sprinter than a turf router."

While My Cousin Matt has been one of the positive developments for Englander this year, he said the year has not been as productive as 2001 and that he will seriously revaluate the scope of his stable for 2003. With roughly 180 horses, 18 trainers, and three full-time employees to help him manage the business, Englander said he probably is stretched a bit too thin.

"We're probably going to consolidate a little bit and cut back at the different tracks," he said. "Going into this three years ago, I thought we'd have a big advantage, claiming a New York-bred with conditions in California and transferring him back to an easier spot.

"We did take advantage of things like that. We've done a lot of moving around, and there's a lot of upside to it. But having to manage all the horses and people has gotten a little overwhelming, so we're going to sit down and reassess everything in January."

Great State Wager canceled

Sam Houston and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association made a joint decision to call off the Great State Wager, which would have allowed patrons to bet which state wins Great State Challenge.

Horses are awarded points for their finishes in the six-race series, and at the end of the program one state is declared the Great State Challenge Champion. That will still happen, but patrons will be unable to bet on the outcome.

The wager lost some of its viability because some states will have considerably more horses in the series than others.

"It was top heavy one way or another, so we dropped it," said Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston.

Take Charge Lady arrives

Take Charge Lady was one of 17 horses that arrived at Sam Houston around 2 p.m. Wednesday for the Great State Challenge. She arrived on a flight that originated in New York, picked up horses in Maryland and Kentucky, and then touched down in Houston.

Take Charge Lady figures to be the shortest-priced favorite on the card Saturday when she meets five others in the $275,000 Distaff. Edgar Prado has the mount for Select Stable and trainer Ken McPeek.

Byrne makes first Texas visit

Kentucky-based trainer Patrick Byrne, who has Pass Rush (post 2) in the $275,000 Classic and Private Gold (post 5) in the $275,000 Juvenile, attended the luncheon draw Wednesday.

"Both drew very well," said Byrne. "This is my first time to start horses here and my first time to Texas."

He's hoping to see Pass Rush run a strong race in the Classic. In his last start, the colt was edged in an optional claimer at Churchill Downs. Before that he was a more than eight-length winner of a statebred stakes in Indiana. Pass Rush will be ridden by Robby Albarado.

Corey Nakatani will ride Private Gold, who two races back finished second to eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication in the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile.

* Bork said the Great State races will be simulcast throughout the United States and Canada. "Access to California and New York is something we've not had before," he said. "This event gives us national exposure we have not had in the past."

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini