03/28/2003 12:00AM

Imitation a real threat if turf is firm


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Imitation remains eligible for an entry-level allowance race but will be the starting highweight and likely favorite in Sunday's $75,000 Caltech Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile race on turf.

A field of 11 3-year-olds is entered for the Caltech, including Popular Groom, who will run only if the race is switched to the main track. This is a distinct possibility because torrential downpours soaked the turf course with several inches of rain late Thursday and into Friday morning.

Trainer Christophe Clement will also monitor the condition of the turf before deciding on Imitation's status.

"He'll run only if the course is firm," Clement said Friday, shortly after entering Imitation with jockey Jerry Bailey named to ride. "He's a nice horse and is doing well. Hopefully, with a couple of sunny days the turf will dry out enough for him to run."

Imitation registered his only victory in four starts when he won his grass debut at Belmont Oct. 9. He started just once more at 2, shipping to Hollywood Park, where he finished fifth behind Peace Rules in the Grade 3 Generous Stakes.

Imitation opened his 3-year-old campaign finishing third, just a length behind local division leader Nothing to Lose in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes.

Only four members of the Caltech field have progressed through their first-level allowance condition - Purely Classic, Mr. Mississippi, Poppy's Image, and Popular Groom.

Purely Classic posted back-to-back turf victories to close out his 2-year-old campaign and open his 3-year-old season for trainer Todd Pletcher. He forced the pace in the Palm Beach before fading to seventh in his stakes debut.

Mr. Mississippi opened his 3-year-old season with a come-from-behind, 1 3/4-length allowance victory while making his first start for trainer David Paulus.

Poppy's Image, claimed for $80,000 out of his last start by trainer Phil Serpe, returns to the turf following a pair of main track outings.

Trainer Shug McGaughey will give the lightly raced but promising Charge a chance to pick up a stakes win despite the fact he returns following his March 13 maiden win.

"He's relatively fresh, comes out of his last race well, and had a good work on dirt," McGaughey said. "This is a little aggressive for me going right to a stakes off a maiden win, but the race isn't shaping up to be any more than a two-other-than allowance."

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