04/24/2003 11:00PM

Is Handy N Bold still a top sprinter?

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AUBURN, Wash. - With a record-equaling nine local stakes wins, Handy N Bold doesn't appear to have much left to prove in Sunday's six-furlong, $35,000 Seattle Handicap for older horses at Emerald Downs.

But he does.

After a brief 2002 campaign that saw him beat just one horse in only two starts, Handy N Bold, now 8, needs to show that he still belongs with the fastest sprinters on the grounds.

"Last year he had a strained muscle high on his hip that was bugging him, and that was why he ran poorly," said trainer Charles Essex. "I turned him out after we diagnosed that problem and his hip healed up fine, but when I brought him back he chipped a knee. We had the chip removed and turned him out again, and that was it for his 7-year-old season.

"I brought him back to the track again in February and he has been training like his old self, but I guess I won't know for sure until I run him. I wish I had one more work in him, but he is doing well and he really hasn't missed a beat in his training.

"He is awfully hard to outrun when he is right, because he has so much speed and so much heart. I think he is right, but the proof will come on Sunday. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Penney goes with two horses

Handy N Bold's primary opposition is likely to come from the powerhouse barn of trainer Jim Penney, who nominated the defending Longacres Mile champ, Sabertooth, and two 4-year-olds to the Seattle. Only the 4-year-olds - Salt Grinder, a double stakes winner here last meet, and Turban, a winner of two of his three career starts - will go.

"Sabertooth isn't quite ready," said Kay Cooper, Penney's daughter and assistant.

"Salt Grinder has been just awesome this spring. He worked six furlongs from the gate in 1:09.60 last week, and he really did it very easily. It didn't look like he was going that fast, but he has an extremely long stride, and he can be very deceiving. It was a pretty darned impressive work, and we're expecting him to run big.

"Turban probably wants more ground, and I'm not sure he can sprint with these horses, but we're going to give him a chance. He is very talented, but he is a late-maturing horse who didn't race at 2. He is at a big disadvantage in terms of seasoning, but he is fit and ready to run. We will just have to see how he does."

Penney's hand only figures to grow stronger in future handicap stakes. Cooper reported that both Sabertooth and Edneator, the hero of the 2000 Longacres Mile, are nearing their seasonal debuts.

Wood pellets rate the nod

The competition between wood pellets and peat moss as the bedding material of choice for Emerald trainers, a neck-and-neck affair after straw was banned from the track last season, is now all but over.

A recent inspection of the bunkers used to store soiled bedding material until it is taken away for composting revealed great mounds of the decomposed wood pellets, but not a shred of peat moss.

"I don't know of anyone who is still using peat moss," said trainer Bud Klokstad. "I used half peat moss and half wood pellets last year, and I thought it made a nice bed, but it was too hard on my grooms. The peat moss packs, and that makes it harder to clean the stalls. I like to try to find the easiest way to do things."

Alfarune set for Portland Meadows Mile

Alfarune, the 123-pound highweight among 17 nominees, will head a deep field in Sunday's $35,000 Portland Meadows Mile at Portland Meadows.

A 5-year-old homebred who races for Savario Farm, Alfarune comes off a third to $100,000 optional claimers in a one-mile grass race at Bay Meadows April 6. He was subsequently shipped to Emerald, where trainer Sarah Middleton put the finishing touches on his preparation for the Portland Mile.

"He's ready," said Middleton. "Craig Dollase had him in California, and he did an excellent job with the horse. He arrived here in great shape, and he has been training really well, so we have high hopes for him."

Alfarune, who will be ridden by Portland's leading rider, Juan Gutierrez, figures to face stiff opposition from Team Zachary and Prodigious. Both horses were claimed at Golden Gate out of their most recent outings for $40,000, and both went to Northwest connections who were specifically looking for Portland Mile candidates.

Also dangerous are the local stars Lethal Grande, who is coming off a trackrecord performance at six furlongs; Yesss, a winner of four straight route races in Portland; and Chinquapin Charlie, the defending Portland Meadows Mile champion.