08/11/2004 11:00PM

Praise the Prince a winner

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The venerable Praise the Prince returned from an absence of 50 weeks on Thursday to win the $79,600 A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase Stakes for the second time in four years.

The 9-year-old gelding hesitated a bit while going over the final fence, but seized the opportunity when Barzulu, who was right with him a furlong out, bobbled after clearing the final fence. Praise the Prince surged to the front, then held off a belated bid from Najjm, at 60-1 the longest shot in the field.

Praise the Prince ($3.90) won by a half-length over Najjm, with Barzulu another three-quarters of a length back in third. Praise the Prince completed 2 1/16 miles on a course rated good in 3:41.13.

"We had some traffic on the backside, but he knows his job," said Rob Massey, who rode Praise the Prince. "He's so professional. He had every right to fold up coming around the turn, but he is so determined, it's amazing."

Praise the Prince won the Smithwick in 2001, missed the race because of an injury in 2002, then finished second in this race last year. Next up will be the Sept. 2 New York Turf Writers Handicap, in which Praise the Prince is the defending champion.

Since switching from the flats to the jumps, Praise the Prince has won nine times in 20 starts. Sanna Hendriks trains Praise the Prince, who is owned by George Strawbridge's Augustin Stable.

"He's just an extraordinary horse," Hendriks said. "When he sees another horse in front of him, he just wants him."

Praise the Prince carried top weight of 154 pounds in the Smithwick. He will carry 158 in the Turf Writers.