10/15/2003 11:00PM

Hanlan handles soft

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - In-form allowance runners Hanlan and Festive Spirit should have an edge if the turf has some give to it for Saturday's $144,750 Bunty Lawless Stakes, a one-mile race for Ontario-sired runners at Woodbine.

Hanlan was a very good fourth over soft ground in the 2002 Bunty Lawless, beaten just two lengths after dueling through fast fractions. He began his current campaign with two dreadful races on the main track, but has blossomed in his last three races on the grass, finishing second each time.

"He loves any footing, as long as it's grass," said trainer Greg Cox. "I ran him on the dirt a couple of times [in April], and I was very disappointed. He just doesn't put out on the dirt anymore."

Normally a front-runner, Hanlan surprisingly stalked the pace on the outside going 1 1/4 miles last time out, and was beaten a neck after leading for most of the stretch run.

"There was no speed at all in that race," Cox said. "We were going to try to make soft fractions. He got a little jittery in the gate when they [delayed] the race, which can definitely hurt a horse with speed. I thought he ran a good race for not going to the lead, but that wasn't our plan."

Festive Spirit graduated against maiden special opposition Aug. 5 at Fort Erie, and hasn't done much wrong since. He doubled up here in a $40,000 condition race, and was recently an eye-catching allowance winner going a mile over a soggy course, which was officially labeled as good.

"I'm praying for rain for him," said John LeBlanc Jr., who trains Festive Spirit.

LeBlanc also entered Sophia's Prince, who is also under consideration for Sunday's Highlander Handicap on the main track, the surface over which he has won two consecutive allowance races.

"If it comes up soft, I don't think he'll like it," LeBlanc said. "We'll probably enter him in both races, and then make a final decision after we do a little handicapping. His last race sure impressed us all. He came out of it as good as he did for all his other races."

Among the other 11 entrants are 2001 Bunty Lawless winner Starbeau and Steady Ruckus, who won the race in 2002 and in 2000.

Starbeau missed all of 2002, and has struggled during limited campaigning this year, while Steady Ruckus has just a single third-place finish in seven starts at the meeting.