06/02/2003 11:00PM

Quickest sprinters square off

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - The North American record for 4 1/2 furlongs on the turf stood for nearly 10 years until Stuttgart broke it and became the first Thoroughbred to run the distance in less than 50 seconds on March 29 at Golden Gate Fields.

But Stuttgart's time of 49.86 seconds was a short-lived record. Fifteen days later, Dan's Groovy broke Stuttgart's record, clocked in 49.26 at Turf Paradise.

The two meet in Thursday's feature at Bay Meadows.

And maybe neither will win.

The likely winner in the field of nine older $32,000 claimers is Stuttgart's entrymate Pacing the Cage, who just beat similar rivals at this distance. Pacing the Cage ran third, beaten 4 1/2 lengths, the day Stuttgart set his record.

Stuttgart set the record in a $12,500 claiming race. Stuttgart, a New Zealand-bred, had won his previous start, which came at 4 1/2 furlongs. That day, as he rounded the turn and planted his left front hoof, he kicked up a divot and lost

his footing. Somehow the 6-year-old Stuttgart maintained his balance, regained his stride, and finished strongly to win.

When Stuttgart broke the record of 50 seconds flat, set by Cake N' Steak on Aug. 9, 1993, at Mountaineer Park, jockey Roberto Gonzalez was actually slowing him down into the turn to prevent a repeat of the divot incident and then he wrapped up late.

Stuttgart has finished fourth in his two starts since the record run, once for Thursday's $32,000 tag and then for $12,500 in his last start, when he was claimed by trainer Terry Marshall.

Gonzalez will ride Dan's Groovy on Thursday, and Dan's Groovy will be hard-pressed to get the lead early. Dan's Groovy's fractions in his record run were 21.24 and 43.43, while Stuttgart went 20.59 and 43.33.

There is plenty of other speed in the field should either Dan's Groovy or Stuttgart falter early, and it is the pace pressure that should benefit the stalking Pacing the Cage, who will be coupled in the betting with Stuttgart.

"We have speed, and we sit back with the other one," said Marshall's assistant trainer, Genaro Vallejo.

Chance Rollins will ride Stuttgart because, Vallejo said, "We wanted to try someone else."

He also said that if Stuttgart gets an easy lead, he will win - and that he will be tough to beat if he gets any kind of a lead.