04/26/2002 12:00AM

Handy N Bold begins his rite of spring

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AUBURN, Wash. - Trainer Charlie Essex has the routine down pat for Handy N Bold, the certain favorite for Sunday's $35,000 Seattle Handicap at Emerald Downs.

Each spring Essex cranks his stable star up for a limited but intense campaign at Emerald Downs, and every fall he turns him out for an extended period of rest and recuperation so he can come back and do the same thing the next year.

For each of the last two seasons, the now 7-year-old Handy N Bold has run five times, contesting the six-furlong Seattle, the 6 1/2-furlong Fox Sports Network, Independence Day, and Governor's handicaps, and the Longacres Mile.

Each year he has won three sprint stakes, and last year he finished a highly creditable second to Irisheyesareflying in the Grade 3 Mile to nail down his second straight sprinter of the meeting title and his first award for the meet's top older horse.

Handy N Bold enters the Seattle, a race he won in 2000 and 2001, with a record of 10 wins and six seconds from just 24 starts, including a record-equaling nine stakes wins at Emerald. If he doesn't win the race again, it won't be because Essex has done anything different.

"I have tried to do everything exactly the same," said the trainer. "Fortunately, he has always been sound enough to allow me to do that. I worked him a slow six furlongs two weeks out, then a fast five furlongs a week before race, just like I've always done. He seems to be doing as well as ever, so hopefully the result will be the same."

The champ will face a new crop of challengers on Sunday, however, a group headed by an exceptional 4-year-old, Jumron Won. Trained by Bud Klokstad, Jumron Won has already won seven stakes at Emerald, including the rich Gottstein Futurity at 2 and the Emerald Breeders' Cup Derby at 3, and he has trained as though ready to make a seamless transition to the handicap ranks.

"He's doing well," Klokstad confirmed. "He is pretty much the same as he always was, but I think he has filled out a little and maybe he is working a little faster. He worked faster than I wanted on Tuesday, in fact. Another horse broke off in front of him and he grabbed the bit and went five furlongs in 57.40. He did it pretty easy, though, and it was far enough ahead of the race that I don't think it will hurt him."

Klokstad recognizes that Handy N Bold will be the one to beat on Sunday, and he feels Jumron Won will need help in order to pull off a mild upset.

"If Handy N Bold gets to go out there and gallop along on the lead, nobody is going to catch him," Klokstad said. "Somebody has to put a lot of heat on him, and it won't be my horse. Jumron Won is pretty much a one-move horse. He'll lay his body down for the last quarter-mile, but if you ask him much before that he doesn't have the same finish."

If anybody is going to hook Handy N Bold it will be Sabertooth, who sped to three impressive sprint wins over maiden special weight and allowance company here last season. Trainer Jim Penney doesn't relish the thought of seeing his 4-year-old engage in an all out speed duel with the older runner, however.

"I think both horses probably need to be in the clear, but neither of them necessarily needs to be in front," said trainer Jim Penney. "Our horse will run as fast as he can if you let him go, but you can delay that response. I think the same is true of Handy N Bold. So I can see them going the first quarter in 21.20 if the riders ask them, but I can also see them going in 22.40 if they sit still. Personally, I'd rather see them sit still."

Penney reported that his undefeated 3-year-old, Salt Grinder, came out of his track and state record-setting allowance victory on Saturday, when he blazed 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:01.40, in good order and will likely join the stakes ranks in his next start.

o The Washington Horse Racing Commission has selected Gary Christenson, retired chief of the state Health Care Authority, to serve as its interim executive secretary. Christenson, 55, will help in the search for a permanent executive secretary to replace Bruce Batson, who was dismissed last week after nine years of service to the commission.