05/25/2004 11:00PM

Pace should set up Powerful Touch

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Powerful Touch was among the more highly regarded hopefuls during the early stages of last year's Triple Crown trail before being sidelined by injury. On Friday, he makes his third start back from a long layoff and may be a slight favorite over seven rivals in the featured third-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles.

, a son of 1997 Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold, was second in a photo when he made his stakes debut in the 2003 running of the Holy Bull, beating 11 rivals including eventual Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.

Three weeks later, however, Powerful Touch was declared off the Derby trail because of an injury to his right leg, and did not resurface until early March of this year, when he finished third in an optional claimer at Santa Anita for new trainer Bobby Frankel.

Powerful Touch's second start back from the layoff was a convincing win at Churchill Downs last month, in an optional claimer "for non-winners of $7,990 three times other than maiden, claiming or starter, or non-winners of four lifetime." He slipped through inside the leaders turning for home and quickly drew clear.

Powerful Touch could get a similarly beneficial pace scenario on Friday, because the early fractions figure to be hotly contested by Rogue Agent and Perfect Cut.

has made nine starts since being claimed for $35,000 last summer by trainer Michael Brice, and has racked up two wins and five runner-up finishes while moving up in class to set the pace in several stakes events.

In his two starts against third-level allowance opposition, Rogue Agent was forced through very demanding early splits, and each time was worn down in deep stretch at odds-on. Rogue Agent should have his hands full once again, due to the presence of Perfect Cut, who set wicked fractions of 45 seconds and 1:09 against eventual stakes winner Seattle Fitz in a 1 1/8-mile route on this track last September.

A pace meltdown could also enhance the chances of several other contenders in this competitive route, including Bodgiteer, a perfect-trip winner for a $50,000 claiming tag at Keeneland last out; Limero, who comes off a lifetime-best effort in which he beat second-level allowance types with blinkers added; Levendis, beaten just a length in the Kings Point Handicap last out by the venerable Gander; Lightning Stripes, a late-rallying winner for $50,000 here opening week; and Sherpa Guide, a four-time winner at Belmont, including the 2002 running of the Evan Shipman Handicap.