03/16/2004 12:00AM

Onetime Derby hopefuls clash

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Last year Strength Within and Aristocat were Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Now they are simply trying the clear the two-other-than allowance condition.

The two 4-year-olds highlight Thursday's featured eighth race at Gulfstream Park, an optional claiming race for allowance horses or $50,000 claimers at a mile and 70 yards.

This will not be the first time the two have faced each other. A little over a year ago, they raced in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, with Aristocat finishing second behind Region of Merit, two lengths in front of fifth-place Strength Within.

Although Aristocat got the better of Strength Within that day, the circumstances appear more in Strength Within's favor on Thursday. Aristocat has raced just twice since the Tampa Bay Derby, finishing eighth in the Arkansas Derby and a distant ninth in his 4-year-old debut, a seven-furlong allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 9.

, the runner-up behind Lion Tamer in the 2003 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream, has seen much more action. He raced eight times after the Tampa Bay Derby last year, winning one race and finishing a close second at Churchill Downs in his final start of 2003 behind Spanish Empire, eventual winner of the Louisiana Handicap.

Unlike Aristocat, Strength Within enters Thursday's race in peak form. After running third in his seasonal debut, he finished second in a fast 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 15. That performance earned him a 96 Beyer Speed Figure, which matches the highest of his career and is easily the top last-race Beyer of any entrant in Thursday's field. Rene Douglas rides for trainer Tom Proctor.

, meanwhile, has Gulfstream Park's leading trainer, Todd Pletcher, in his corner. Jerry Bailey rides.

Of the seven other entrants, Major Leaguer and Shotgun have the best opportunity to challenge Strength Within and Aristocat.

Major Leaguer, a 4-year-old son of Grand Slam, has won two of four starts, including an entry-level allowance in the slop at Gulfstream on Jan. 31. Unraced since, he has been working steadily at Payson Park for trainer John Kimmel. Regular rider Edgar Prado has the mount.

Shotgun Fire is one of four horses running under the $50,000 claiming conditions of the race. A graded-stakes-placed horse with five career victories, he has a seasoning edge over many of his opponents.