06/23/2005 11:00PM

If Soaring Free has a hurdle, it's I Thee Wed

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Soaring Free, Canada's reigning Horse of the Year, will be a short price in Sunday's $223,800 Scotts Highlander Handicap. I Thee Wed, however, was a razor-sharp winner of the allowance prep for this Grade 3 test, and could give Soaring Free a run for his money in the six-furlong turf race.

I Thee Wed, a 5-year-old Affirmed gelding trained by David Bell, won his first stakes on the grass here in October, taking the six-furlong Nearctic Handicap at 26-1. After getting the winter off, he finished fourth on the dirt in the seven-furlong Vigil Handicap.

I Thee Wed tracked a moderate early pace in the six-furlong prep for the Scotts Highlander before making a bold three-wide bid for the lead on the turn. He kicked clear in the stretch to prevail under a hand ride from Jim McAleney, who has ridden him in 16 of his 17 starts.

"I Thee Wed has always shown a lot of potential, but he hasn't always come to the forefront," McAleney said. "Last spring, with the campaign that Dave was going to put him through, I thought he was going to rise up and be with the best of his peers, and the Nearctic really showed the talent that he has. He always runs hard, but to get him to run his absolute best performance, certain things have to take place, and they did in the Nearctic and in his last race."

Soaring Free, who won the 2004 Highlander, only has to finish fourth Sunday to reach the $2 million mark in earnings. In his lone outing this year, under Jerry Bailey in the Grade 3 Shakertown at Keeneland, Soaring Free was a determined winner over Mighty Beau.

"It was a great race," said trainer Mark Frostad. "I thought he was going to get passed in the stretch, but he dug in and wouldn't let the other horse go by. Bailey was certainly impressed with him."

Frostad said he's concerned that I Thee Wed will carry 118 pounds in the Highlander, compared to Soaring Free's high weight of 126 pounds. "He gets in pretty light," Frostad said of I Thee Wed. "That's quite a bit of weight to give away."

By design, Soaring Free is being campaigned more conservatively this year at age 6, according to Frostad.

"He's getting older, and we want to conserve him as much as possible at this point," he said. "He doesn't need to be running in all the preps. He's trained well, and should be on track for Sunday."