07/24/2001 12:00AM

Just Free's best bet is to rate


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - A field of eight older horses will square off in a $25,000 optional race at 6 1/2 furlongs Wednesday at Hastings Park, and Just Free is the only horse who hit the board in his last start. He could be the one to beat in a race that appears very difficult to pick a winner.

Just Free finished second to Real Quest for $20,000 July 8 and was claimed out of the race by K.K. Sangara, who moved him to leading trainer Harold Barroby's barn. Just Free started the year by finishing out of the money to Buckeye Bates in a $25,000 optional race and then showed improvement with a fourth to Buckeye Bates for $32,000 on June 24. Dropped in for $20,000, Just Free was sent off favored, but after leading for most of the way, he tired late and was caught by Real Quest in the last few strides. There appears to be plenty of other speed in the race, and leading rider David Wilson will likely try and rate Just Free off the early leaders.

J V Bennett won his last sprint but has finished fourth in two subsequent routes. A classy 8-year-old gelding, he likes to be in front, and with Tofino and Mr. Superion Knight also entered, it's not likely that he will be able to get a clear lead. J V Bennett has won the odd race from slightly off of the pace, and if he is to have any chance here, Pedro Alvarado will need to be patient.

Shingen Storm should benefit from the likely duel up front, but he has never won at 6 1/2 furlongs and his best Beyer Speed Figure doesn't appear good enough. Rugger shortens up after setting the pace and tiring to finish unplaced in a starter allowance race July 1.