07/11/2001 11:00PM

Only three to take on Strut the Stage

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Strut the Stage will get to strut his stuff as the heavy favorite in Saturday's Grade 3 Toronto Cup Handicap at Woodbine. Just four were entered in the 1 1/8-mile turf race for 3-year-olds, which is worth $132,375.

Strut the Stage blew away a solid field of maidens when he debuted in a seven-furlong turf dash here last August. He was 2-5 in his only other 2-year-old race in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes, but he didn't fire like he did in his opener and finished third.

Hugh Chatman, assistant to trainer Mark Frostad, said Strut the Stage got wound up before the Summer.

"He got pretty washy in the paddock," Chatman recalled. "It wasn't good from the get-go. That's why we started paddock schooling him this year at Keeneland."

Strut the Stage made his seasonal debut in a 1 1/16-mile allowance on the grass at Keeneland April 21. With Corey Nakatani aboard, he came from 4 1/2 lengths back to win going away and earned a 92 Beyer Figure.

"Nakatani loved him," said Chatman. "He tucked him in behind horses, and said he just dragged him around horses. Once he got free turning for home, he was gone."

Strut the Stage was equally impressive winning his most recent race here, the Charlie Barley Handicap. He made an explosive three-wide bid on the turn in that race, and then cruised to a 7 3/4-length win in a time that earned him a 97 Beyer.

"He's grown up a lot," said Chatman. "He used to be a bit nervous as a 2-year-old, but he's getting better all the time. We've spent a lot of time schooling him."

Last year's Toronto Cup winner, Think Red, and Strut the Stage are both owned by Sam-Son Farm.

"Think Red is a big, strong horse with a long, easy stride," Chatman said. "Strut the Stage is a lot smaller, but he has beautiful action on the grass. He's a little powerhouse."

Todd Kabel retains the mount on Strut the Stage, the 122-pound highweight.

Completing the field are Crown's Prospect, Stage Classic, and Legal Heir.

Legal Heir and Stage Classic were second and third, respectively, in the June 24 Charlie Barley.

Stage Classic's trainer, Dave Cotey, said he doesn't think the small field will hurt his horse's chances.

"He's one-paced, but he's not a plodder." Cotey said. "He can sit pretty close to the pace if he has to. He has a little speed."