01/03/2002 1:00AM

Lil Sister Stich at top of game


ALBANY, Calif. - Lil Sister Stich was a bit of a disappointment in Southern California early in her career. But time, a move to northern California, and, perhaps most importantly, a switch to the turf have her fulfilling her potential.

As a result, the 5-year-old Lil Sister Stich will be the likely favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Work the Crowd Handicap at Golden Gate Fields. The race, for Cal-bred fillies and mares, will be run at one mile on the turf course.

Lil Sister Stich, to be ridden by Frank Alvarado, drew post 2 and will be the co-highweight at 117 pounds with Mimi's Cafe, who will break from post 6 with Russell Baze. Also entered are Yes We Do, Miss Ng in Action, Muschi, Super Tuesday, and Warren's Whistle.

Lil Sister Stich was sent to trainer Armando Lage last August. She won her first start for him in a $12,500 race on Aug. 16 at the Bay Meadows Fair. The race was her first on the turf.

"I think that was a huge part of her improvement," said Lage, referring to the surface switch. "She's by a sire, Seattle Bound, whose offspring have done well on the turf, and she wasn't doing much on the dirt."

Lil Sister Stich has run five times for Lage, all on the turf, with four victories and a third. She comes into the Work the Crowd with a three-race win streak, including victories in the Cal Cup Distaff Starter Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet and the Golden Poppy Handicap over turf here in her past two starts.

Lage called the mare "very sound," yet she did not run after winning her maiden on Nov. 25, 1999, until July 4, 2001. Lage said that her former trainer did not discuss her problem with him and joked that he did not want to know.

Lage said he has learned not to ask too much of Lil Sister Stich between starts.

"She's a very high-strung horse," he said. "She really gets into her races. Every race takes something out of her. I could see how she gets into it, even when she's training. I have to give her 24 days to a month between races."

The one time Lage did not do that is the one time Lil Sister Stich did not win for him, when she finished third, beaten a head in a four-way photo.

Because Lil Sister Stich puts as much into her works as she does her races, Lage tries to make her works long, easy, and infrequent.

For Saturday's race, she had a seven-furlong workout on Dec. 24 and a six-furlong work in the slop Sunday.

"I breezed her in that mess because I wanted to find out if she could handle an off track," Lage said. "Who knows if they'll take the race off the turf? She seemed to handle it well."

Lage says he's feeling "very confident" coming into the race.

That may not be a good omen for opposing trainers. Lage believed Lil Sister Stich would win her Cal Cup race.

"I was so confident she was going to win that race," he said. "She was really, really good in every way. My only question was the mile and an eighth. She'd never gone that far, but sometimes for a horse who's really intense a longer race is better because they relax."

Lage wasn't quite as confident before Lil Sister Stich's win in the Golden Poppy.

"I was confident, but [Richard] Mandella and [Neil] Drysdale had fillies in the race," Lage said.

Mandella's horse, Slow Down, ran second with the Drysdale-trained Elegant Ridge third.

* Fans bringing a canned food item to Golden Gate Fields between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday will receive free grandstand admission.

* The "Golden Gate Report" race replay show will move to a new time Sunday, airing at 5:30 p.m., an hour earlier than its previous 6:30 p.m. time slot. The program airs at 5 p.m. on weekdays and 6:30 p.m. Saturdays.

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