02/19/2004 1:00AM

Pace depends on Pie N Burger

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Crafty Shaw's strategy in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Saturday could be determined, to a certain extent, by the connections of Pie N Burger.

Pie N Burger, a front-runner who has won four stakes in his last five starts, was entered in the 1 1/16-mile race, but there is a possibility he may not run. The idea would be to find a less demanding spot for his first start since Oct. 25, when he won the $150,000 Seabiscuit on the Breeders' Cup undercard.

"We have a long year ahead," said Cole Norman, who trains Pie N Burger for Kagele Brothers and James A. Bailey.

If Pie N Burger does start, don't think he won't be ready.

"We've had him back going since December," Norman said. "I think he'll have a good year. He's never run at Oaklawn, but he has been working good here."

Pie N Burger, who drew the rail, could be a nice target for Crafty Shaw to stalk if he stays in Saturday. If he does not, Crafty Shaw, who will be ridden by Craig Perret, could be the speed of the race, which he won in 2002.

"If he has to do it on the front end, Craig can get him to settle and relax and slow the pace down and still be effective turning for home," said Pete Vestal, who trains Crafty Shaw for Oaklawn president Charles Cella.

Crafty Shaw seems to have even more going for him this year than last year, when he won $351,185. He has left some of his headstrong ways behind, and has matured into a more responsive kind of horse.

"I think he's probably going to be a little more versatile this year," Vestal said. "He's not as aggressive in his breezes. He's still very tough to gallop, but in his breezes he used to take off and go a little faster than you really wanted him to early on. I'm very pleased with the way he's breezing this year because he's not taking so much out of himself."

Crafty Shaw, who has career earnings of $874,440, comes into the Essex on the heels of a wire-to-wire allowance win Feb. 1. He edged a game Docent by a nose, and figures to move forward off that race, which was his first since Nov. 28.

Docent was also returning from a layoff in that race, which was his first since Nov. 11. He is a 15-time winner who has trained sharply at Oaklawn for the Essex. Last year, he won five stakes. James Lopez has the mount for trainer Tim Ritchey.

Others in the eight-horse field include Private Emblem, who has won all three of his starts at Oaklawn, including the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby in 2002.