04/01/2003 1:00AM

Imitation towers over turf field

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Imitation would have been the starting highweight and heavy favorite to win last Sunday's Caltech Handicap. But a soft turf course forced trainer Christophe Clement to scratch him out of the race.

The Gulfstream Park turf course figures to be firmer and the competition far easier for Imitation's return to action on Thursday, when he will be an even bigger favorite to win a $38,000 first-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles.

A full field of 14 3-year-olds was entered, but only eight will be allowed to start, with the rail set out 30 feet from the inner hedge.

Imitation will be stepping down in company off a third-place finish behind local division leader Nothing to Lose in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes in his 3-year-old debut on Feb. 21. Imitation has a decided edge over his seven rivals not only in class but also in Beyer Speed Figures. He earned a 90 Beyer for his effort in the Palm Beach and a career-best 91 when he easily won his turf debut last fall at Belmont

Moonshine Hall could be Imitation's toughest competition. Moonshine Hall rallied from midpack entering the stretch to win his maiden in his grass debut at a mile here on Feb. 6.

A competitive 6 1/2-furlong sprint for second-level allowance runners shares top billing on Thursday's nine-race program.

Mike's Classic, a winner of two of his last three starts, heads a field that also includes the red-hot pair of West Code and Pape, Pinch Hitter, Love That Moon, Billy Big Rigger, Thunder Boot, and Smooth Lover.

Mike's Classic raced in blinkers and with Lasix for the first time when he earned a career-best 92 Beyer winning an entry-level allowance race at five furlongs on March 16.

West Code and Pape have combined to win their last five starts.

West Code has risen from the lower echelon of the claiming ranks to post a three-race winning streak and is part of a Norman Pointer-trained entry with Thunder Boot.

Pape won his last two, showing vastly improved speed since being claimed by trainer Mark Shuman for $25,000 earlier in the meet.

Pinch Hitter missed by a neck under similar conditions in his last start and also appears to be in the best form of his career.

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