06/21/2001 12:00AM

Hap looks best in New Hampshire Sweeps

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SALEM, N.H. - Hap, who overcame a troubled start in his only race this year to win the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico, will face six rivals, including Gander, in Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 New Hampshire Sweepstakes Handicap on turf at Rockingham Park.

Gander, while clearly Hap's main rival, has never won on turf and hasn't raced over it since 1999.

Hap has been pegged at 123 pounds for the 1 1/8-mile race and will break from post 4. John Velazquez will ride for trainer Bill Mott.

Hap races for the Allen Paulson Living Trust. He is a 5-year-old homebred by Theatrical and the Hagley mare Committed and, as his breeding suggests, has excelled on turf, racking up nearly $485,000 in earnings after seven wins from a dozen starts. Five of his wins, including last year's Grade 2 Bernard Baruch, have been at the Sweeps distance, which is where Mott feels he's at his best.

"He's run with some nice horses and beaten nice good horses [at that distance]," said Mott from his New York base.

Hap was ninth, beaten just 4 1/2 lengths by some of the world's best turf milers in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile. In the Dixie, on the Preakness undercard May 19, Hap stumbled leaving the gate but quickly gained position on the outside. He was a length clear of the field passing the furlong pole and at the wire had increased his advantage to 1 1/4 lengths. The competition on Saturday shouldn't provide him with nearly as much of a challenge.

Gander returns to New England for the first time since last year's Mass Cap, in which he finished fifth behind Running Stag. His lone score of this year came in a 1 1/16-mile allowance at Belmont. He most recently finished a tired fourth in the nine-furlong Brooklyn.

Gander, a winner of nine of 34 starts and $861,628, is trained by John Terranova but made all three of his turf starts as a 3-year-old in 1999, when locally based with Charlie Assimakopoulos. In his three grass starts, he was fourth in a stakes at Tampa and second in two nine-furlong allowances at Saratoga and Belmont.

Besides Hap, only Flash of Joy and Hexagon have previously won on the grass. Flash of Joy has scored five times against much weaker company while Hexagon scored once in an allowance in France in 1999.

The field, in post position order, is: Sky Approval, 110, Taylor Hole; Hexagon, 108, Edwin Molinari; Flash of Joy, 111, Luis Garcia; Hap; Sweeping Energy, 107, no rider; Gander, 117, Aaron Gryder; and Crown Noble, 111, no rider.