04/25/2004 11:00PM

Optional claimer looks more like a stakes

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks day allowance races are often much better than races scheduled on typical racing days at Churchill Downs. Now it seems that trend is extending to some races earlier in Derby Week.

Wednesday's featured ninth race, a $55,500 optional claiming race at six furlongs, drew 12 runners, including several who have run well in stakes. All but two of the starters, , are running under three-other-than allowance conditions.

Notable entrants include , Flying Free, Twin Talk, and Stephentown.

The race is so talent-laden that , an early Kentucky Derby hopeful in 2002, will be a longshot. Freshened after going off form last year, he makes his first start since June.

His new trainer, Pat Huffman, said the horse has thrived in a low-stress environment at Highpoint Training Center in Lagrange, Ky.

"He is good and sound," Huffman said.

Stephentown, a winner of two of six starts at Churchill Downs, breezed a half-mile in 52.20 seconds on April 17 at Highpoint.

"He's fit enough if he's good enough," said Huffman. Mark Guidry rides.

Five of Stephentown's opponents exit an April 2 allowance race at Keeneland. Saintly Look, Cloud Walker, Shawklit Man, Engineered, and Flying Free finished third through seventh in that race, which was won by the speedy Strength and Honor.

Saintly Look and Cloud Walker, a winner of three of five starts, will be among the favorites.

A live longshot could be , who finished sixth behind Strength and Honor. Trainer Hal Wiggins said he was puzzled by Engineered's failure to mount a significant challenge at Keeneland.

At Churchill Downs, where Engineered has won before, a better effort could be forthcoming. Calvin Borel, who has ridden Engineered to two of his three victories, has the call.

"He's a come-from-behind sprinter," Wiggins said. "When Calvin has ridden him, he has come back and told me, 'Whatever you do, don't stretch him out.' "

Engineered should receive a legitimate pace to aid his rally with the presence of front-runners Cloud Walker and Battle Won. Both horses will race Wednesday with blinkers off. Flying Free will add blinkers.

Battle Won, a winner of three of six races, finished second in his 4-year-old debut on March 6 at Gulfstream Park. Pressing victorious Key Deputy into a 43.81-second half-mile in the seven-furlong race, he weakened slightly and was beaten three lengths. Edgar Prado rides.