06/03/2004 12:00AM

Pair hopes to catch stars napping

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Two trainers in Saturday's $40,000 African Prince Stakes at Suffolk Downs are hoping they can catch the leading 3-year-old Massachusetts-breds at the right time.

The African Prince is the first 3-year-old statebred race this year.

Gerry Souto will send out Episode on Tour for only his third career race, and Bill Lagorio will saddle the filly Teeney Bubbles. Both have to hope Strongestsoverign and Senor Ladd - who finished one-two when this division got together last fall in the Norman Hall Stakes - have come back to their competition.

Strongestsoverign appeared dominant against statebred juveniles last year, winning his only two starts at Suffolk. He faltered through two races this winter, however, and has been on the shelf since March waiting for the statebred stakes to start.

Senor Ladd improved during the winter, going from his runner-up finish to Strongestsoverign to two victories and five in-the-money efforts overall in Maryland for Suffolk's leading trainer John Rigattieri.

That leaves Souto and Lagorio fighting uphill, but each has hope.

Souto is hoping Episode on Tour can follow in the footsteps of his sire, Second Episode, and grandsire, First Episode, in Massachusetts-bred races.

"It's a little early to compare him to his father considering he won something like 14 or 15 stakes," said Souto, who saddled Episode on Tour to his maiden victory May 26. "I can tell he's got a chance, because when he won the other day he didn't have any idea what he was doing. He was green as grass and still won. He was trying to lug in. He pulled himself up once he got the lead. He went through fast fractions and still drew off impressively. I thought it was a super race, and he can't help but improve since he was so stupid out there."

Souto has galloped Episode on Tour up to this race instead of working him. He said Episode on Tour was so strong in his gate workout before his last effort that, coupled with the race itself, jogging has kept him fit.

Lagorio will send a filly against a strong group of colts and geldings, but he is undaunted based on the progress Teeney Bubbles made in Florida this winter before he claimed her in April.

"My owner and I claimed her at Gulfstream with these races in mind," said Lagorio. "I know it's against the boys, but it's still against straight 3-year-olds. When she was here last fall, she finished second in a stakes and had bucked shins. She's got good speed, but when we got her in Florida she broke horrible and still smoked by everybody in there, so she's got an added dimension. She's training well and right on target."

Trainer Lori Lockhart specializes in developing Massachusetts-breds and will enter three in the African Prince: Bertie's Dream, Otter, and Senor Gator. Only Otter has won, having taken two straight at Penn National in March and April.

King De and Strike and Conquer round out the field.

Handicapping contest begins

The first of three qualifying contests for the DRF/NTRA Handicapping Championship will be held next Saturday.

The entry fee will increase for each round, with the first set at $25. All three contests will call for $20 win-place bets on 10 pre-selected races, three of which will be from the Suffolk card.

The winner earns a berth in the national championship next January in Las Vegas. The top 10 in this first contest will also win prizes from Daily Racing Form.