05/25/2002 12:00AM

Irish Prize needs things just so

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Gary Stevens has very little margin for error when he rides Irish Prize, the veteran turf miler.

"He doesn't like to be in front too early and doesn't like to be in front too long," Stevens said.

Irish Prize, a 6-year-old gelding, does not draw off when he reaches the front but wins by a nose, head, or neck. The style creates added drama for his backers and makes Stevens's job more difficult. On Monday, Stevens's timing will be on display when he rides Irish Prize in the $500,000 Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile at Hollywood Park.

The defending champion of the Grade 1 Shoemaker, Irish Prize will be coupled in the betting with Touch of the Blues, who won the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland last month. Owned by Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum and trained by Neil Drysdale, the pair will be favored against a field that includes seven other stakes winners.

Irish Prize and Touch of the Blues are closers. They are reliant on front-runners such as Orientate and Special Ring to set a fast pace that will help their late kick.

Irish Prize has not started since finishing second by a half-length in the Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on turf at Santa Anita on April 6. Sent off as the favorite, Irish Prize rallied five wide on the final turn to lead in early stretch, but was caught near the finish by Seinne. Avenging that loss is Stevens's goal on Monday.

"I made the lead too early," Stevens said. "There was nothing I could do when you have a target that stops."

With a larger purse and the need to negotiate through traffic in the final half of the race, the Shoemaker is a more difficult spot for Irish Prize, a winner of 10 of 27 starts and $1,242,353. Plus, there are stalkers who may have first run.

Ladies Din and Redattore, the last two winners of the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar, will be near the pace. Ladies Din won an allowance race on April 25 and has been second in two runnings of the Shoemaker - in 1999 and 2000.

Redattore won the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 3 at Santa Anita, missed the Dubai World Cup because of foot problems in March, and was second in the Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap here as the favorite on May 5.

He is one of several top-class turf milers capable of testing Irish Prize on Monday.