04/15/2004 11:00PM

Handicap division filled with stars

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The older handicap division at Hastings looks deeper than it has been in recent years. The 2003 crop of 3-year-olds was exceptional, so this season, local horse of the year Roscoe Pito, Illusive Force, and Stratoplan will be squaring off against Lord Nelson and company.

Of course, they all have to go through Lord Nelson. The 7-year-old gelding has been the top older horse in the province for the past three years, and his trainer, Dino Condilenios, is hoping for another strong campaign.

"It all depends how his feet hold up," said Condilenios, referring to the quarter cracks that have plagued Lord Nelson throughout his career. "Right now they're great, and he should run in the George Royal," on May 2.

A son of Maudlin, Lord Nelson ran only five times last year and had the same number of races in 2002, but he has been almost unbeatable at a middle distance at Hastings. Over the past two years he has won four of his five starts around two turns and finished second to Vernon Invader in the 2002 B.C. Cup Classic. The Grade 3, $100,000 Lieutenant Governors' on July 1 will be his first major goal this year.

"After that, we'll see," said Condilenios. "Maybe the Longacres Mile again, and I wouldn't mind keeping him around for the Premiers."

Lord Nelson finished third in last year's Longacres Mile.

Roscoe Pito, who scored a rare triple by winning the Emerald Downs Derby, the B.C. Derby, and the Premiers last year, is also being pointed to the George Royal. John Snow, who is the trainer and part-owner of the talented son of Light of Mine, isn't making any long-range plans for him just yet.

"We're taking it one race at a time," he said. "Of course I know the date of the Lieutenant Governors', but that's quite a ways off, and we'll look for his next race following the George Royal."

Roscoe Pito will go into the George Royal having won five stakes in a row.

One of the most impressive horses training at Hastings this winter has been Illusive Force. But with stablemate Bold 'n Keen, last year's champion sprinter in British Columbia, headed for the George Royal, Illusive Force will make his 4-year-old debut at Emerald next Sunday in the Seattle Handicap. Illusive Force was the champion 2-year-old in 2002 but only won a single race last year, mostly due to a failed Queen's Plate attempt.

Rob Van Overschot, who trains Illusive Force, also has proven stakes winners Stratoplan and Lord Shogun in his barn.

"I'll try to keep them apart as much as I can," he said. "Lord Shogun is going to start in Calgary on May 8, and Stratoplan won't start for a while. I'm looking at the Lieutenant Governors' for Illusive Force. The Longacres Mile is the major goal for Stratoplan."

Shacane to make comeback

Shacane was the best 3-year-old at Hastings in 2002, but he hasn't started since winning the Premiers that year. Following the Premiers, he was sent to Southern California, where he bowed a tendon. He just arrived back at Hastings following stem-cell therapy, and is stabled with trainer Toni Cloutier.

"Stem-cell therapy is a fairly new procedure," said Maryl Shatzko, who owns Shacane along with her husband, Paul. "We sent him to a clinic in California where Dr. Doug Herthel performed the procedure.

"Basically, he extracted stem cells from Shacane and injected them into his tendon. They then grow into tendon cells, which help with the healing process."

Herthel performed the same procedure on 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication, who was subsequently retired to stud.

Shatzko said that after the procedure, Shacane stayed in California, where he underwent rehab by swimming and lightly jogging on a treadmill in the pool.

According to assistant trainer Mark Cloutier, any trace of a bowed tendon is gone.

"He looks great," said Cloutier. "We're just taking it easy with him right now but so far so good."

Leloup, who won the Randall Plate last year, underwent the same procedure and arrived at Hastings on the same van as Shacane. He is stabled with trainer Peter Stephen.

With proven stakes horses such as Kalfaari, Silver Donn, Futural, Diglett, Blowin in the Wind and others in training, the handicap division shapes up as an extremely competitive one.