12/08/2004 12:00AM

Loving back on favored inner track

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - After running once off the claim in October, trainer Dominick Schettino decided it best to freshen the soon-to-be 9-year-old gelding for the winter meet over Aqueduct's inner track.

A wise move, considering Loving went 2 for 3 over the inner oval last winter, including a victory in the Gallant Fox Handicap at odds of 19-1. Loving returns to the inner track in Friday's $50,000 Coyote Lakes, a starter handicap for horses who have run for a claiming price in 2004. The Coyote Lakes, run at 1 1/4 miles, serves as a prep for the $75,000 Gallant Fox on Dec. 29.

It is noteworthy that Loving finished fifth in a similar spot last year before winning the Gallant Fox. Richard Dutrow Jr. trained him then.

Schettino claimed Loving for $75,000 on Sept. 15. Loving won that day, four days after he won a restricted stakes at Delaware Park. Schettino ran him back on Oct. 14, when he finished third behind Colita, who has since come back to run second and third in a pair of graded stakes.

Loving has been training steadily for Schettino, and fired a bullet six-furlong work in 1:14.80 on Nov. 30 over Belmont's training track.

"He came out of that [Oct. 14] race a little light so I gave him a little break," Schettino said. "He had run four times pretty close together."

Loving must carry 123 pounds, conceding 5 to 15 pounds to six rivals. Mike Luzzi, who won four races on Wednesday, has the call.

Region of Merit, who won the 2003 Tampa Bay Derby, has run second in four consecutive claiming races for Greg Martin, who took Region of Merit for $50,000 in July. All four races have been around one turn.

"I've been dying to run him two turns," Martin said. "He won the Tampa Bay Derby going two turns, and I think that was his best race. A mile and a quarter? It's a new thing for him."

Blinkers are also new for Region of Merit. He will wear them for the first time on Friday.

"I couldn't think of any other reason why he didn't win last time," Martin said. "I think there's a little more there than he's been giving us."

Lightning Stripes, who finished second the only time he has run 10 furlongs, Limero, and Dawn of the Condor figure to make their presence felt late. Thanasi and Napoleon Solo complete the field.