04/28/2004 11:00PM

Prairie Express comes up strong

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Rarely does a $50,000 stakes draw a field as strong as the one for the 5 1/2-furlong Prairie Express on Saturday night at Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa.

Multiple stakes winners Coach Jimi Lee, Chindi, and Sand Ridge are among the 11 horses recruited for the Express by stakes coordinator Jay Johnson. The field also includes defending Express champion Pie's Lil Brother, Abbi's Choice, who is seeking his fifth straight win, and Pelican Beach, a winner of 15 of his 30 career starts.

Coach Jimi Lee deserves top billing. A 4-year-old gelded son of Roar, Coach Jimi Lee scored three stakes wins in the Chicago area last year.

But it is Coach Jimi Lee's performances in two defeats this year, that mark him as a potential player on the national sprint scene. In his 2004 debut, Coach Jimi Lee finished third, beaten 3 3/4 lengths, in the Grade 3 Deputy Minister at Gulfstream on February 7. The second-place finisher in that event was last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat.

Coach Jimi Lee proved that effort wasn't a fluke by returning to finish second in the Grade 2 Richter Scale on March 6, beaten just three-quarters of a length by Lion Tamer.

Trainer Jim DiVito likely entered the Express searching for a soft spot to build Coach Jimi Lee's confidence, but he didn't get it. Jesse Campbell takes over the riding assignment on Coach Jimi Lee from Pat Day, who rode Coach Jimi Lee in both starts this year but will be at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

Chindi is a 10-year-old gelded son of El Prado. Known throughout the Midwest for his powerful stretch kick, Chindi has a career record of 17-12-18 from 71 starts and $947,341 in earnings. Chindi is the defending champ of Prairie's premier sprint race, the $125,000 Iowa Sprint Handicap - a race he also won in 1998 - and his success is a tribute to trainer Steve Hobby, who has kept Chindi in top form throughout his career, which began in 1997.

Chindi is winless in three starts this year, but has finished on the board in all three races. Hobby will give Chindi's regular rider Tim Doocy a leg up Saturday.

Sand Ridge also has an abundance of back class. A 9-year-old son of Known Fact, Sand Ridge has 16 career wins from 54 starts with $674,619 in earnings. Sand Ridge won this event in 2001 and rallied strongly to miss by just a nose in last year's renewal. He won the Iowa Sprint Handicap in 2002.

Sand Ridge makes his third start following a layoff and should be primed for a top effort by trainer Don Von Hemel. Sand Ridge's regular pilot, Ken Shino, has a return call Saturday, and the pair figures to launch a rally from midpack.

Pie's Lil Brother is the defending champ in the Express, but is winless in seven starts since. His biggest asset may be his connections. Trainer Stanley Roberts and jockey Terry Thompson are off to strong starts at the meeting and lead their respective standings.