08/06/2001 11:00PM

Hot jumper faces big hurdles


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Sanna Neilson is one of the hottest steeplechase trainers in the game. Last year, Neilson won four of the 12 jump races run at Saratoga, including two with Praise the Prince. On Thursday, Neilson sets her sights on her first Saratoga stakes win with Praise the Prince, in the $75,000-added A.P. Smithwick Memorial, the first race on the card.

Praise the Prince, the winner of the Meadowbrook Stakes at Belmont Park on June 7, is the likely favorite of eight jumpers entered in the 2 1/16-mile Smithwick, a prep for the $100,000-added New York Turf Writers Cup on Aug. 30.

The Smithwick is an important test for Praise the Prince, a 6-year-old New Zealand-bred gelding, because it's the first time he has competed outside of novice company. He also must shoulder high weight of 158 pounds, giving 4 to 16 pounds to his rivals.

Praise the Prince has a record of 5-3-1 in nine starts over the jumps. But, Neilson cautioned, the weight assignment and facing seasoned jumpers for the first time is no easy task for her horse, who is small in stature.

"It's a big change from novice races to the open condition," Neilson said as she watched Praise the Prince saunter around a paddock adjacent to her Saratoga barn. "Certainly his record is just phenomenal. I keep thinking he will throw in a clunker, but he has the heart the size of Texas, and is so determined."

Praise the Prince, who will be ridden by regular rider Gus Brown, tuned up for the Smithwick by winning a flat race on the open house card here July 22.

Neilson also will saddle Spring Salute, who is not coupled with Praise the Prince. Unlike his stablemate, Spring Salute, a 7-year-old, is hardly a picture of consistency. His last win came several months ago, but Spring Salute did fire big up here last summer over a soft course.

Tommy Voss, who won the Smithwick in 1997 with Brigade of Guards, saddles Quel Senor, who has an upset chance. The gelding is coming off a dismal performance at Colonial Downs, beaten 23 lengths in the Ferguson Memorial July 14 on an extremely hot day. Voss said the heat didn't help and that it was a long time in between races for Quel Senor, who, he said, was not fit enough.

"This is a pretty nice horse, but he jumps spotty," Voss said. "He takes an awkward fence now and then."

Popular Gigalo, Canta Ke Brave, Al Skywalker, Aggro Crag, and Indispensable complete the field.

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