07/03/2003 12:00AM

Lord Nelson same old self


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - For the last two years Lord Nelson has been the top older horse in British Columbia. But after Lord Nelson started this season with losses in two sprints, his trainer, Dino Condilenios was worried he had lost a step. The classy 6-year-old gelding left little doubt, however, that at nine furlongs he is still the champ in these parts, as he scored a three-length victory in the Grade 3 Lieutenant Governors' here on Tuesday.

"He's back," said his usual rider, Frank Fuentes. "He broke a bit awkward, and for an instant he was trapped behind horses. But they let me out of there, and from then on it was pretty smooth sailing."

Fuentes kept Lord Nelson three wide while stalking Ekati, who was setting a moderate pace, and Commander Craig, who was never more than a half-length behind the pacesetter. Fuentes called on Lord Nelson for more as they approached the quarter pole, and they had the lead by the middle of the turn. Fuentes rode him hard down the lane, but that was only because of the importance of the situation.

"I really only asked him for the last eighth of a mile, but I asked him for his life because it's such a big race," he said. "I wanted to make sure we didn't get caught. He was really comfortable the whole way. Dino had him ready, and when he's on his game he's very tough to beat."

Condilenios breathed a huge sigh of relief following the race and will now point Lord Nelson toward the British Columbia Cup Classic on Aug. 4.

"That takes the pressure off," he said. "I just wasn't sure where he was mentally. The last time I ran him he was kind of warm in the paddock and got ratty on parade and in the gate. Today he was dry and calm and he seemed like he was back to his old self."

Condilenios won three races on the Canada Day card and also saddled the second-place finisher in the Lieutenant Governors', Let's Go Rusty.

"I thought Rusty ran a huge race," he said, noting the 23.04-second, 47.87, and 1:12.53 fractions, that "they were going pretty slow up front for a mile and an eighth, so for him to come from that far behind was very encouraging."

The final time for the nine furlongs was 1:50.49.

Let's Go Rusty is also headed to the Classic.

Condilenios could also have the favorite for the B.C. Cup Sprint with Celt, who looked very sharp beating Hong Kong Jockey Club winner Bold 'n Keen in a $50,000 optional race Tuesday.

Stratoplan's next uncertain

Stratoplan, ridden by Nicola Wright, leaped to the top of the 3-year-old division with an easy five-length victory in the Burnaby Breeders' Cup. His trainer, Rob VanOverschot, was undecided where he will make his next start.

"I have to figure out what to do with him and Illusive Force," he said. "One of them will probably head to Alberta and the other stay here."

According to VanOverschot, Illusive Force was recovering well from his Queen's Plate ordeal, where he finished last and was dehydrated after the race.

Festival ends strongly

Tuesday was the final day of the inaugural Festival of Racing, which started off with a whimper on Saturday but closed with a bang. The numbers for the first two days weren't what Hastings management had been hoping for, but part of the reason for that was because a convention was being held on the adjacent PNE grounds at the same time, and parking spaces for track patrons were limited.

"Saturday was the second-worst day of the year, but Tuesday more than made up for it," said Phil Heard, president of Hastings. "The place was packed and the handle was the best we've had since the 2000 B.C. Cup."

The total handle from all sources on 11 races Tuesday was $1,308,914, compared with $1,056,970 last year on nine races. The ontrack handle of $645,062 was up from $438,289 in 2002.