06/03/2004 11:00PM

Hope flickers for Victory Light

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For a brief window of time late last summer, Elliott Walden had three promising 2-year-olds in his stable. Tiger Hunt and Lightnin n Thunder dominated the Sept. 1 Cradle Stakes at River Downs by finishing one-two. Nearly two weeks later, Victory Light closed stoutly to finish a close second in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine.

But Lightnin n Thunder suffered what was diagnosed as a career-ending injury in the Cradle, and Tiger Hunt, owned by Team Valor, eventually was transferred into the care of the syndicate's new private trainer, Ralph Nicks. Meanwhile, Victory Light remained active but failed to become a factor in the division, and Walden found himself with an empty nest when the spring classics rolled around.

Those developments were something of a disappointment for Walden, who in recent years had been a frequent player in the Triple Crown scene. Easily Walden's most notable contribution to Triple Crown drama came six years ago Sunday, when his Victory Gallop foiled a Triple Crown sweep by Real Quiet by getting up in the final jump to win the 130th Belmont Stakes.

Despite missing the big stage, Walden continues to enjoy his work and a steady trickle of success. Sunday, he will be at Churchill Downs with Victory Light, who probably is the horse to beat among a field of nine 3-year-olds in the co-featured 10th race, a $49,100 entry-level allowance route.

, a bay gelding bred and owned by WinStar Farm, just happens to be a son of Victory Gallop. Since his near-miss in the Summer, Victory Light has had five races: four stakes, and one Gulfstream Park allowance on an afternoon when the track was sloppy.

Eleven races are carded for Sunday, and the Victory Light race is directly preceded by the richest race of the day, a $64,300 allowance restricted to fillies and mares who have not won a grass race this year. Silent Stream and Golden Marlin both appear to fit those conditions well. Golden Marlin, however, has already had two sharp races at the Churchill spring meet and likely has an edge.

One other allowance (race 6) also is on tap Sunday.

After Sunday, Churchill goes dark for the usual two-day span before racing resumes Wednesday. The coming week will be highlighted by the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap and five other stakes Saturday.