07/01/2001 11:00PM

Irish Prize ready to go 'Bang!'


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If Grade 1 stakes winner Irish Prize runs to his ability in Wednesday's $250,000 Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs, there will be no toteboard fireworks this race for Fourth of July racegoers.

Irish Prize, recent winner of the May 28 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park, is the hottest horse in the one-mile Firecracker. The bad news for value-seekers is that he is the 9-5 favorite on the track morning line, and his odds could drop to as low as 6-5 or even money .

Besides his victory in the Shoemaker, he has won two other graded stakes this year - the San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita and the Fastness Handicap at Hollywood Park. In both victories he closed powerfully behind slow fractions, using his acceleration to blow by his opponents in the lane.

He adapted to quicker splits in the Shoemaker. Falling behind more than 10 lengths in a fast opening half mile in 45.61 seconds, he swallowed the leaders with a late rally and blazed a mile in 1:33.68.

Although the first half-mile of the Firecracker is unlikely to be run in 45 seconds, the pace should be fast - which should play to Irish Prize's closing strength. Strategic Mission, Northcote Road, Where's Taylor, and Conserve - half of the Firecracker starters - are front-running or pace-pressing runners.

If Irish Prize has a weakness, it is that he ran poorly on this course in November. Racing in the River City Handicap on Breeders' Cup weekend, he never got involved and lost by nearly 10 lengths to Brahms, a horse he defeated this May in the Shoemaker Mile.

Much of his success has come on California grass courses, which play faster than the Churchill Downs turf.

Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale has given the mount to Gary Stevens, who has been aboard for Irish Prize's last two victories. He carries 122 pounds and will spot his rivals from five to 10 pounds.

The opposition is headed by Aly's Alley, the leading money earner in the field with a bankroll of over $750,000. Unlike Irish Prize, he is proven over the local course, having won an allowance prep June 9.

Trainer Carl Nafzger, who took over the training off Aly's Alley following the death of trainer John Tammaro this spring, feels the horse is coming into his own as a turf miler. Last year he competed in grass marathons, finishing second in the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap and the Grade 1 Sword Dancer.