04/04/2002 12:00AM

Little separates top two


JAMAICA, N.Y. - Evening Attire and Ground Storm, stakes winners who dominated the New York handicap ranks this winter, are the horses to beat in Saturday's $200,000 Excelsior Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct.

Not much separates Evening Attire, who carries 119 pounds as the Excelsior highweight, and Ground Storm, who totes 118 pounds in the Grade 3, which drew a field of six.

Evening Attire, a 4-year-old trained by Pat Kelly, enters the 1 1/8-mile Excelsior off three consecutive wins in Grade 3's, including two on Aqueduct's main track, the Discovery and Queens County. The Bill Mott-trained Ground Storm is a winner of three of his last four starts over the inner track, including a strong performance in the Grade 3 Stymie on March 9 in his last start.

Evening Attire was forced to sit out the Stymie because of a virus, which Kelly said cost the gelding about two weeks of training time. Kelly said he doesn't anticipate the layoff will be a problem for Evening Attire, who made a powerful move to gain the lead leaving the backstretch in the Aqueduct Handicap on Jan. 19 during a snowstorm in his last start. Evening Attire won the Aqueduct by 2 3/4 lengths over Ground Storm, who was second.

"He's done good [before] with a little time between races and keeps himself pretty fit," Kelly said. "He's ready to go."

Shaun Bridgmohan rides Evening Attire, who is owned by Kelly's father, Tommy, and partners Joseph and Mary Grant. Evening Attire drew post 6.

Ground Storm, owned by Centennial Farms, finished sixth as the favorite last year in the Excelsior after a tough trip. Racing as a 6-year-old this year, Ground Storm is at the top of his game.

Seth Benzel, Mott's assistant who has overseen Ground Storm's winter campaign, said he doesn't see a drawback in the return to the main track, where Ground Storm has won once in two starts.

"He's a long-striding horse and those sweeping turns suit him just as well," Benzel said. "I'm not worried a bit."

Javier Castellano rides Ground Storm from post 4.

Speed is lacking in the Excelsior, which means Evening Attire and Ground Storm probably will be close to the pace.

Deborah Bodner, who won the Excelsior in 1999 with Smart Coupons, will saddle the in-form John Little, who makes his stakes debut.

Pleasant Divorce, a fast-closing third in the Stymie; Windsor Castle, who won the Remsen at Aqueduct in 2000; and Yankee Doodle Boy complete the field.

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