04/25/2002 12:00AM

I'm Free and Lord Nelson face off

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Going into the 2001 racing season at Hastings Park, Lord Nelson and I'm Free were just a couple of nice horses that had shown a lot of potential. After a combined eight stakes wins last year, they figure to battle it out for divisional honors this season. They will face each other in Sunday's George Royal Stakes.

I'm Free dominated the local 3-year-olds last season. He won five of the seven stakes he entered and finished second in the other two. He was unlucky to lose in the Emerald Downs Derby and it certainly was no disgrace to finish second to Fancy As in the B.C. Derby.

I'm Free's trainer, Henry Miller Jr., had a lot of confidence in him last year and wasn't surprised by his sensational year. But he's aware that I'm Free will be facing older horses for the first time in the George Royal and will need his running shoes to beat Lord Nelson.

"I thought [I'm Free] had one of the most impressive 3-year-old years that I've ever seen here," said Miller. "And I think he'll be a tough horse again this year. He's training just fine and I expect him to give a good account of himself Sunday."

Miller picked up a few additional horses this year when his father, Henry Miller Sr., decided to retire from training.

"He had a little trouble with his heart, nothing major, but he felt it was time to start taking it easy," Miller said.

Miller got off to a good start when Marina Del Sol won the second race opening day.

"Dad was pretty happy," said Miller. "He looks better than he has in years and he'll occasionally come out and watch them work. Even though he's part-owner on most of them, he told me that I'm in charge and he wants me to call all the shots. So far so good."

While I'm Free blossomed as a 3-year-old, Lord Nelson didn't come into his own until midway through his 4-year-old year last year. He put it all together with three straight stakes wins, beginning with the Hong Kong Jockey Club July 21. He closed out the season with a second-place finish to Fancy As in the 1 3/8-mile Premiers.

Lord Nelson's front-running style is similar to I'm Free's, but both horses are capable of rating just off of the lead.

"We'll see how it goes," said Lord Nelson's trainer, Dino Condilenios. "I guess Henry's horse will be on the lead, but if they give it to us we'll take it. He's versatile."

Condilenios was content with Lord Nelson's training this winter. "Everything is on schedule," he said. "I haven't really set him down but he's doing well. I guess there's more pressure on me because of what he did last year, but luckily that shouldn't have any effect on the horse."

Strong filly division

It's a little bit early to be thinking about the $175,000 Breeders' Cup Oaks Sept. 7, but local fans can look forward to watching what appears to be a bumper crop of 3-year-old fillies headed in that direction.

Elana d'Amour was an impressive winner of the 6 1/2-furlong Fair Lady Stakes opening day, but she may not be favored when she comes back in the Supernaturel May 18. Also headed there is Classic Action, trained by David Forster, who easily won an optional claimer on opening day.

Elana d'Amour gave Joe Apperloo his first stakes win as a trainer. Apperloo took out his trainer's license in 1986, but has trained mostly claimers.

"I had a pretty nice one in Jo n Jo," said Apperloo, "but every time we entered him in a stakes race he would get sick or something would happen."

Apperloo wanted to share the credit for Elana d'Amour's win with his stepson, Brian Giesbrecht.

"I oversee her training at the farm, but Brian takes care of her when she ships in here," Apperloo said. "It works out quite nicely."

Forster is usually loaded with talented fillies and this year is no exception. Along with Classic Action he also trains Secondary School, who cruised to a 4 1/2-length win in her debut despite getting in tight on the first turn and going four wide around the stretch turn. Forster also is excited about Miss Ballard, who won a maiden race at Emerald on Sunday.