07/31/2003 12:00AM

Leloup getting it together just in time for Classic


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Leloup, who will start in the British Columbia Cup Classic on Monday, was one of the reasons trainer Peter Stephen headed to New Mexico to race at Sunland Park last winter. Leloup was one of the best 3-year-olds at Hastings last year, but because he didn't make his first start until August, he never faced the leaders of the division.

His only defeat at Hastings last year was in his debut, when he broke in the air and never really had a chance. Leloup won his next three starts, however, and his most impressive race was when he was stretched out to 1 1/16 miles.

Stephen had a very talented and lightly raced horse on his hands, and with the Hastings season coming to a close he was looking for a place to run.

"The reason he took so long to get to the races was that when I bought him last spring he was barely broke," said Stephen, who is part-owner. "It took a while for him to get adjusted to the traffic on the track, and honestly, he just wasn't that bright. He's a big colt, and sometimes it takes them a while to come around."

Stephen decided on Sunland Park because of the slot-fueled purses and the climate. He also thought that a long-striding horse like Leloup would appreciate a mile track. Leloup won a conditional allowance race as the 1-2 favorite in his first start in New Mexico, but in his only poor effort to date, he ran out of the money in a 6 1/2-furlong stakes race.

"We didn't know it at the time, but after the race he was pretty sick," explained Stephen. "He had a temperature and he just wasn't himself."

He came back with a strong effort in the one-mile Winsham Lad Handicap on New Year's Day, finishing second by a head.

"Actually, I thought that he had the race won," said Stephen. "But he made the lead and then started to wait for horses. He was still pretty green."

Leloup finished second in another stakes, the Curribot Handicap, and then, in his only try at the B.C. Cup Classic distance of nine furlongs, he battled through quick fractions before tiring to finish third in an open allowance race. Stephen wasn't very happy with the ride he was given.

"Steve Asmussen had a very fast horse that I knew was going to go be in front, and my instructions to the jock was to sit behind that one," he said. "Leloup's usual rider had been hurt at the starting gate in an earlier race, and I guess his replacement wasn't paying attention when I gave him instructions."

Don't expect to see Leloup on the lead in the Classic, but don't be surprised if he gives the heavy favorite, Lord Nelson, all he can handle. Leloup looked sensational working a mile in 1:37.40 Monday morning, and he galloped out nine furlongs in a very strong 1:52.80. He certainly looks primed for a big effort.

"He's really blossoming right now," said Stephen. "That was really an easy work for him, and he's finally maturing. Lord Nelson will be tough to beat, but Leloup has never been better."

Stephen is planning a return visit to New Mexico this winter, but instead of taking proven winners with him, he will bring horses with conditions.

"They run 12 races a day, but only five of them are open races. They have four Quarter Horse races, three for New Mexico-breds and then most of the others races are for nonwinners-of-two, three, and four. It was tough to get horses that weren't eligible for a condition in a race."

Despite having trouble getting some of his horses into races, Stephen had nothing but praise for Sunland Park.

"It's a great place to race," he said. "They had three purse increases while I was there, and you don't pay jock mounts - they pay right down to last. The people were fantastic, and I really enjoyed myself. I've never been so relaxed at a racetrack. I'm happy to have my foot in the door and I'll definitely be going back this winter."