09/06/2001 11:00PM

I'm Free ready for new challenge


AUBURN, Wash. - Hastings Park star I'm Free will bring his show to Auburn for Sunday's nine-furlong, $125,000 Emerald Breeders' Cup Derby, and if it plays as well here as it did in Vancouver, fans will be in for a treat.

I'm Free, a gelded son of Free at Last who races for Beverly Green and trainer Henry Miller Jr., has been sensational at Hastings this season, winning five stakes, including his last four starts.

"He has exceeded all my expectations," said Miller. "And I've always liked him."

Miller reported that he broke I'm Free and hoped to buy him at auction as a yearling, but could not meet his reserve. Fortunately, nobody else met his reserve, either, and the trainer was eventually able to reach an agreement with his breeder to lease him with an option to buy.

"He trained well from the beginning, but we didn't want to start him until we owned him," said Miller. "We finally brought in Beverly as a partner and exercised the option, and we were on our way."

I'm Free collected his maiden win against special-weight company in his second start at 2, then ran third in the rich Jack Diamond Futurity before being turned out for the winter. Coming back this spring, he won the 6 1/2-furlong City of Vancouver Stakes and ran second to Diglett in the 6 1/2-furlong Klondike Stakes. It wasn't until he was sent long for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile Burnaby Handicap, however, that he ran to his full potential.

"I thought he would route, but he gave me more than I bargained for," recalled Miller. "Diglett was everybody's best bet that day, but I'm Free just toyed with him and won off by more than four lengths. That was when I realized what I had.

"I've been training since I was 16 and this is my 21st year. I had a nice sprinter named Kazbar, who ground out over $200,000 in earnings, and a horse named Saucy Mo, who won stakes going long, but I've never had one like this guy. He is definitely the best horse I've trained."

With three subsequent stakes wins, I'm Free has done nothing to change his trainer's mind. On Sunday, though, he will be venturing into new territory. He will be shipping, running over a mile track, and trying nine furlongs - all for the first time.

"Shipping is a concern, but not a huge concern," said Miller. "He has a great temperament until he gets on the track, then he can get a little rambunctious. I'm taking his pony along to keep him calm. The pony is a 25-year-old Appaloosa named Apache, and he and I'm Free are the best of buddies.

"The distance isn't a big concern, either, because he has finished so strongly at 1 1/16 miles. The main question is how he'll handle the bigger track. He isn't a very big horse and he runs the turns really well on the bullring. He might not have that advantage on a mile track. He has done everything we have asked of him, though, so I've got to be optimistic."

I'm Free may notice a familiar face when he lines up for the Derby, as his old rival Diglett will be in the cast. Diglett, a Washington-bred who was purchased by owner Rodger Lam from the 1999 WTBA Sale for $9,000, has been on the grounds since mid-July with Ned Sams, assistant to trainer Gary Demorest, and he has the advantage of two recent races over the track. An Alnaab gelding, Diglett ran third to Jade Green in the Tacoma Handicap, then registered a resounding 6 1/4-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile Washington Owners Breeders' Cup Handicap on Aug. 12.

"He can be a little inconsistent, but really he has had excuses for most of his losses," said Sams. "He bled through Lasix when I'm Free beat him in Vancouver, and that was one of the reasons we brought him down here. He didn't have an excuse for his first race here, but he may have just needed a race over the track. He really showed what he could do last time. When he's firing on all eight cylinders, he is a very tough horse to beat.

"He has trained up to this race really well, so we're hoping Sunday will be one of his good days."