12/27/2001 1:00AM

Personal First in peak shape

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Most horses good enough to compete in stakes at Gulfstream or Fair Grounds already are long gone from the chilly climate of Kentucky.

But only after the Holiday Cheer Stakes is run Saturday at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., will Personal First, the probable favorite for the six-furlong race, finally be shipped to Gulfstream to point to that track's winter series of sprint stakes.

Personal First, an earner of over $450,000, appears to be coming into top form just in time for the Holiday Cheer and the rest of the winter. A 4-year-old colt trained by David Paulus, Personal First was injured in November 2000 in a training collision but apparently has recovered to the point that "he's probably better than he's ever been," said Paulus. "He's a tank."

Personal First drew post 4 in a full field of 12 in the $50,000 Holiday Cheer, with Bet Me Best, Lucky Baldwin, and Willowbrook Lane probably the strongest challengers.

Personal First captured the Grade 3 Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga as a 3-year-old before injuring his shoulder. He underwent surgery and a was forced into a lengthy rest period, to the point that the shoulder "atrophied so much, it was like it disappeared," said Paulus. "But he's come back great, and obviously we're happy about that."

Personal First has dominated two recent allowance races at Turfway and figures to be a solid favorite off those efforts. He will be ridden by Jesus Castanon, a particular favorite of Diane Waldron, who owns the colt with her daughter Leah Killingsworth, and Bill Shively.

Bet Me Best won an allowance race at the recent Churchill Downs meet and has won eight of 20 starts overall. Lucky Baldwin came to hand at Churchill with two sensational allowance triumphs. Willowbrook Lane, winner of the Holiday Cheer last year, has had another busy campaign this year earning nearly $125,000 in the process.

The Holiday Cheer is the last of five stakes at Turfway's holiday meet, which ends Monday. Tuesday is the beginning of the track's winter-spring meet, with the first stakes being the Jan. 5 Turfway Prevue.

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