07/03/2003 11:00PM

Hoovergetthekeys ready for a repeat


PLEASANTON, Calif. - Defending champion Hoovergetthekeys is fresh and ready to bid for a repeat in the $50,000 Alamedan Handicap as the Alameda County Fair winds up its two-week run Sunday.

Hoovergetthekeys won last year's Alamedan by a nose over Takin It Deep for his last victory.

A 5-year-old gelding, Hoovergetthekeys has seven rivals in the 1 1/16-mile race.

Winner of the Golden Gate and El Camino Real derbies as a 3-year-old, Hoovergetthekeys followed last year's Alamedan victory with a second-place finish to Takin It Deep in the $100,000 Joseph Grace Handicap at Santa Rosa but tailed off after that, prompting trainer Brian Koriner to give him a rest.

"He had no injury that made us turn him out, but he let us know it was time," Koriner said.

Hoovergetthekeys seemed revived after his freshener. His looks improved, and his works were strong.

Koriner considered bringing him into the Alamedan on works alone, then opted to run him in the Foster City Handicap on the turf on closing day at Bay Meadows. Hoovergetthekeys showed more speed than usual and tired a bit in a race he obviously needed.

"That's about what I thought going in," Koriner said. "I thought he'd either run big or tire. The horse had trained as well as he'd ever trained."

Koriner said he hopes Hoovergetthekeys will benefit from the race and has been satisfied with his two works since.

"Some might be concerned because we freshened him, then he comes back and runs the same kind of race," he said. "Hopefully, he'll improve off that race. I think I have a fresh horse for the summer."

Hoovergetthekeys will lay off the pace, but the track has played better to closers of late so he shouldn't have to overcome a major bias.

Metatron and Matter of Honour, a New Zealand-bred son of Kentucky Derby runner-up Casual Lies, who was stabled in Pleasanton, offer plenty of pace for Hoovergetthekeys to run at.

Black Ruby up against it

Black Ruby, the queen of northern California and world champion mule, will have her work cut out for her when she meets her longtime rival Taz and a hot newcomer, Sarah Nelson, in a 400-yard race earlier on the card.

Sarah Nelson is considered the heir apparent to Black Ruby's throne and narrowly lost to her at 350 yards at Stockton. Only 4, and a virtual baby in mule-racing terms, Sarah Nelson has a Rubyesque record with 10 wins and two losses in photos in 12 starts.

Sarah Nelson's trainer, Rhoda March, trained Evelyn Nelson (no relation to Sarah Nelson), the only mule besides Taz to beat Black Ruby since 1997.

"Ruby can win at any distance," March said. "I believe Sarah's a little better going longer."

March is also adding blinkers to keep Sarah Nelson more focused early.

Ryan Morris, who will ride Black Ruby, and Victor Miranda, who will ride Sarah Nelson, are both confident heading into Sunday's showdown.

"Black Ruby's a nice mare, but I like my chances," Miranda said. "I didn't get to warm Sarah up to my satisfaction in Stockton, but I will Sunday."

Morris, who gave Black Ruby a perfect ride in Stockton, said, "I can't say why she's so good other than that she's the fastest. She gives her all."