09/02/2004 11:00PM

McPeek expects a lot from newest import

Reed Palmer Photography
Fire Slam (left), beating Unbridled America in the Don Bernhardt, hurt his foot in the King's Bishop.

Gorylla, last year's winner of Argentina's Group 1 Carlos Pellegrini, will make his U.S. debut in Monday's closing day Tri-State Handicap at Ellis Park, trainer Ken McPeek said Friday.

McPeek calls him the "South American equivalent to John Henry," a comparison based on his achievements and longevity. A 7-year-old son of New Colony, Gorylla has raced 34 times, winning eight races, including two last year while competing in some of Brazil's and Argentina's most prestigious stakes.

This year he has raced once, finishing 13th in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic - a poor performance McPeek attributed to the difficult transition of moving from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere.

Since being shipped to McPeek's barn in the states, Gorylla has become acquainted with the U.S. style of training on dirt. He has consistently breezed every six days over the Churchill Downs main track since early July.

Gorylla is expected to a face a field of mid-level stakes horses in the Tri-State Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile turf contest. Rapid Proof, G P Fleet, Banned in Boston, Get Down Wolfie, Missme, and Gretchen's Star are likely starters, according to Tia Murphy, stakes coordinator at Ellis Park. Everything to Gain and Gin and Sin are also being considered for the race, she said.

McPeek has high expectations, having watched Gorylla win the Carlos Pellegrini, the premier turf race in South America. But he acknowledged a concern with the distance of the Tri-State Handicap for Gorylla, a horse accustomed to running 1 1/2 miles. "If he gets beat, it's because of the distance," he said.

McPeek said Gorylla would follow a schedule similar to what Hard Buck experienced last year. In 2003, Hard Buck won the Tri-State and followed that race with a score in the Kentucky Cup Mile at Kentucky Downs. Hard Buck went on to win the River City Handicap at Churchill late last year and the Grade 1 Gulfsteam Park Breeders' Cup in early 2004.

Fire Slam injured foot in King's Bishop

Fire Slam, sixth in the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga Aug. 28 after stumbling at the start, came out of the race with an injured foot. Trainer David Carroll said Fire Slam tore off a shoe at the start and returned with three puncture wounds. "Twenty minutes after the race he was having a hard time walking," he said.

Fire Slam, winner of the Grade 2 Riva Ridge in June at Belmont Park, is being treated with antibiotics and having his injured foot soaked with healing agents to draw out soreness, Carroll said. No timetable has been set for a return.

Meanwhile, St Averil has joined Carroll's Churchill Downs stable after previously racing for trainer Rafael Becerra on the West Coast. Winner of the Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes, St Averil is unraced since finishing sixth in the Santa Anita Derby. He had been entered in this year's Kentucky Derby but was scratched the day before the race. Like Fire Slam, St Averil is owned by Stan Fulton.

Carroll said St Averil spent three months on the farm following the Derby to recover from sore feet. His feet still require attention, Carroll said. Wednesday, St Averil recorded his first workout in Kentucky, breezing three furlongs in 37.20 seconds at Churchill Downs. "We'll try to get him ready for the fall," Carroll said.

McBride tries to hang on

Last year Kim Hammond became the first female to top the trainer standings at Ellis Park. Now Barbara McBride is threatening to become the second in the track's 80-plus year history.

Following the fifth race at Ellis Park on Friday, with four days of racing left in the meet, McBride had won 13 of 69 races, giving her a two-win advantage over five male trainers, who are tied for second: Tom Amoss, Ronny Werner, Bobby Barnett, Bernie Flint, and Bill Mott.

She won't be dropping horses sharply in class over the final days of the meet, however, to win the trainers' title. Most likely she won't be running horses at all, she said.

McBride, 54, has already transferred the 39 horses she trains to Hoosier Park, which began its meet Thursday. With few races in the Ellis Park condition book suiting her horses in the closing days, she anticipates keeping them at Hoosier unless an "extra" merits her shipping one back to Ellis.

"I've done the best I could," she said. "Hopefully I'll hang on."

She will need luck, or perhaps bad luck from the trainers chasing her in the standings. Most have starters over the weekend. Bobby Barnett, for example, has six horses entered Saturday and Sunday. Many will be favored.

Regardless of the final standings at Ellis, McBride attributes her success this year to sound placement and care, as well as opportunity. The tracks at which she has raced in 2004 - Tampa Bay Downs, Indiana Downs, Ellis Park, and Hoosier Park - cater their racing programs toward claiming horses, the kind of horses that fill her stable.

If McBride wins the training title, it won't be her first. A longtime horsewoman with early ties to the Standardbred industry, she was leading trainer four times at River Downs, when the track split its racing seasons in two parts in both 1999 and 2000.

* Sunday's 11-race card is headlined by a $38,000 overnight handicap. Josh's Madelyn, a stakes-winning 3-year-old filly, faces five elder mares at seven furlongs. Keiai Sakura and Silent Stream head the opposition.