09/14/2003 11:00PM

Pace battle may set table for 'Bullet'


POMONA, Calif. - F J's Pace will have unwelcome company Wednesday at Fairplex Park, where he will try to win the $50,000 Aprisa Handicap for the second straight year. He will have to do it the hard way.

An 8-year-old gelding with 13 wins from 53 starts, F J's Pace faces a potential pace war with De Valmont in the six-furlong stakes. If the race unfolds as expected, and the speedballs go at each other's throats, the Aprisa could unfold perfectly for Thunder Bullet. Five sprinters entered the Aprisa, in which F J's Pace makes his fourth appearance.

F J's Pace finished second by a nose in the 1999 Aprisa, came in seventh in 2000, skipped 2001, and won the Aprisa last year. Doug O'Neill, who has trained the sprinter since late 1998, suggests that one reason F J's Pace handles the five-eighth-mile Fairplex track is because he trains exclusively on the training track at Hollywood Park, which is smaller and has tighter turns than the main track there.

F J's Pace has won 10 of his last 22 starts.

The Aprisa will not be the first time he faces a pace battle. Few horses are as quick from the blocks as F J's Pace, but he meets serious heat in De Valmont, a front-running import from Australia. De Valmont has won 3 of 5 in the United States and has yet to allow another horse to set the pace. Tyler Baze rides F J's Pace; Ryan Fogelsonger rides De Valmont.

If the speedballs run each other out, Thunder Bullet could be the beneficiary. In his last start, which came at Del Mar, Thunder Bullet finished fourth behind King Robyn, who returned to win the Foothill Stakes on Friday. Jeff Mullins trains both horses, and he said Thunder Bullet could have given King Robyn a battle.

"If he would have drawn an outside post, I'm not sure King Robyn would have outrun him," Mullins said. Instead, Thunder Bullet drew the inside post and resented being rated. "If you take too much hold, he gets mad," Mullins said. "And the 1-hole worried me, being as fresh as he was."

Thunder Bullet lugged out on the turn and finished fourth, beaten five lengths. It was his first start since April, and Mullins expects a top effort second time back under Martin Pedroza. "He worked really good here," Mullins said of Thunder Bullet, who is 6 of 14 and scored a 10-1 upset on this track last year.

Completing the lineup are Sporting Lad and Billy's Echo.