06/23/2001 11:00PM

Mr. Epperson prevails in Neartic

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Mr. Epperson, one of the hardest knockers on the grounds over the past few seasons, recorded his first stakes victory and the first for his trainer, Scott Fairlie, in Sunday's $223,400 Neartic at Woodbine.

"He's always been a bridesmaid in these stakes races always knocking on the door," said jockey Jim McKnight, who piloted Mr. Epperson to a neck victory in a cavalry charge to the wire in the six-furlong turf handicap. "But today he finally got his just dues, and got the job done."

McKnight positioned Mr. Epperson just off the early pace of 4-5 favorite Texas Glitter, who appeared home free when he opened up a 2 1/2-length lead with a furlong to go but hit the wall and wound up sixth in the field of nine.

Airbourne Command emerged from the ensuing scramble with second money, finishing three-quarters of a length ahead of Alea Iacta Est with Heliotrope another neck back in fourth.

Mr. Epperson was notching his third straight win in the Nearctic, the successes all coming after Fairlie removed blinkers and the gelding adopted a stalking style.

"I'd been wanting to do it for about a year," Fairlie said. "But he was running so good, I was scared to."

Mr. Epperson, owned by Fairlie; his father, Robert; Brian Brolley; and Ronald Marlow, was timed in 1:08.86 and returned $19.50. A 6-year-old Kentucky bred, he collected $134,040 to boost his career bankroll to $587,082.

*Strut the Stage got the day off to a good start for Sam-Son Farm and trainer Mark Frostad, winning the $104,000 Charlie Barley by an emphatic 7 3/4 lengths under Todd Kabel.

A Kentucky-bred colt by Theatrical, Strut the Stage was recording his first stakes win in the Charlie Barley, a 1 1/16 mile turf handicap for 3-year-olds.

Strut the Stage was clocked in 1:40.90 and returned $3.30. Legal Heir finished second, with Stage Classic another 1 /2 length back in third place.