12/05/2002 12:00AM

It's Easyfromthegitgo vs. Pass Rush III

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HOUSTON - It started in Iowa, took something of a backseat in Indiana, and now could resurface again Saturday in Texas. The budding rivalry between Easyfromthegitgo and Pass Rush, both based in Kentucky, figures to be a focal point for handicappers in the Great State Challenge Classic at Sam Houston Race Park.

Thus far, Easyfromthegitgo holds a decided edge over Pass Rush, having finished ahead of him in both the Iowa and Indiana derbies. But trainer Pat Byrne believes Pass Rush is ready to run perhaps the best race of his career, and he is unusually confident Pass Rush will emerge victorious in the 1 1/8-mile Classic.

"He's doing super right now," Byrne said on a chilly Sam Houston backstretch Thursday morning. "I look for him to run great."

Pass Rush, an Indiana-bred, was beaten a neck by Easyfromthegitgo in the July 5 Iowa Derby, then finished sixth while Easyfromthegitgo finished second to Perfect Drift in the Oct. 5 Indiana Derby.

Easyfromthegitgo is trained by Steve Asmussen, who also will start Big Numbers in the Classic. Because of common ownership, the Asmu-ssen horses will be coupled for wagering purposes, leaving just five betting interests.

The eligibility restrictions of the Great State Challenge did not serve the Classic well, at least in terms of field size. Because a maximum of two horses from one state are permitted to compete in any particular Great State event, at least one other horse was excluded from the Classic: Discreet Hero, a Kentucky-bred who was ranked below the Asmussen duo of Easyfromthegitgo and Big Numbers.

"You have a field with five betting interests, and we can't get in the race," said Al Stall Jr., the trainer of Discreet Hero. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Damon Thayer, vice president of event marketing for the sponsoring organization, the NTRA, said: "In fairness to all the other states, those are the rules for this year. The entire Great State program will be evaluated, and this will be one of the details that we will look at."

The other three Classic starters are Continental Red, Pickupspeed, and Rare Cure. Of those, the California-bred Continental Red appears most capable, having run a strong second in the Cal Cup Classic in his most recent start.

The Classic is carded the last of the six Great State events. It is the eighth of 10 Saturday races.