05/12/2004 11:00PM

Harbour Gate faces host of tough locals in six-furlong Almy


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - When Harbour Gate started the year, his connections hoped he would race with the best 3-year-olds in the nation. But now that he has landed at the home track of his owner, he instead will face this region's best older sprinters, in the $40,000 William Almy Jr. Stakes.

Harbour Gate made a splash at Gulfstream in January with a six-length victory that put him on some early Kentucky Derby lists. But a drubbing in the Hutcheson Stakes behind Limehouse forced his trainer, George Handy, to regroup.

Handy, the private trainer for owner Francis McDonnell, knows he is asking Harbour Gate a lot to take on older runners. But Handy thinks he's got one of the best horses in New England regardless of age.

"He is a real good horse," said Handy. "I've always known that. When he won his maiden at Gulfstream, it was just an awesome race. There's no races for 3-year-olds up here so we know we're taking a chance, but he's good enough to try and take advantage of this stakes."

Harbour Gate worked a bullet half-mile from the starting gate Wednesday in 47.40 seconds - a work Handy thought was too quick but nonetheless encouraging.

"I didn't want him to go that fast," said Handy, "but he needed to go to the gate and that keyed him up. He's sharp, though. It looks like he likes the track."

Handy takes the blame for Harbour Gate's last effort, a dull fifth in the Lost Code Breeders' Cup at Hawthorne April 3, saying the gelding didn't ship well from Florida to Chicago. Handy now knows he can't expect Harbour Gate to be ready to fire without some time at a new track.

The older horses in the race have been all-stars at Suffolk for several seasons. Dhaffir won the 2003 Topsider Stakes at the same six-furlong distance as Saturday's races. First Shot won the tune-up for this event May 3 over fellow returnees On the Game and Crypto Dixie. Goodbar is a former regional champion back at age 9.

The new faces, Cripple Creek and Sumerset, are both formidable. Cripple Creek won an allowance at Gulfstream and had a troubled trip in the very swiftly run Yankee Affair Stakes. Sumerset has won 25 percent of his races with 12 victories from his 48 starts.

A Sunday safari

Suffolk will hold a special card Sunday for the annual Hot Dog Safari with an early post of 12:20 p.m.

The 15th annual charity event is the brainchild of Boston radio personality Eddie Andelman and mixes all-you-can-eat hot dogs, family activities, celebrity appearances, and horse racing to benefit the Joey Fund's fight against cystic fibrosis.

Six of the races will be broadcast on Boston's WB affiliate channel 56 and radio station 1510 AM The Zone. Former Boston Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn will be the grand marshal for the event, which is expected to attract between 20,000 and 25,000 people.

There will be no live racing on Monday so that workers can clean up the plant.