01/16/2002 1:00AM

Rare Cure to see toughest foe yet at distance

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Rare Cure, who is perfect in two starts at 1 1/8 miles, will face his toughest test at the distance Saturday night when he takes on near-millionaire Mr Ross in the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

Rare Cure, a winner of five races in 15 starts for trainer Joe Petalino, has been very impressive while flawless at 1 1/8 miles. In his first test at the distance, he led gate to wire in the $50,000 Prelude, a prep for the $500,000 Super Derby that was held last September at Louisiana Downs.

A few months later, Rare Cure took on older rivals at 1 1/8 miles, and won the $75,000 Governor's Cup Handicap at Remington Park in Oklahoma City on Nov. 24. Among those he defeated was Maysville Slew, one of the region's top handicap horses who will skip the Maxxam in favor of running on turf in the $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup in New Orleans on Feb. 2.

"We were thinking about the Maxxam, but went ahead and changed our minds," said C.R. Trout, who trains Maysville Slew. "We're going to try and keep him on the grass."

In his last start, Maysville Slew finished fourth, as the favorite, to Grade 1 winner Vergennes in a turf allowance at Sam Houston.

Last year, Maysville Slew won the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap on turf. A past winner of the Grade 3 Essex at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., he has earned $541,190.

The Gold Cup field, from the rail, is: Deception Island, Weldon Cloninger to ride; Arctic Boy, Gerard Melancon; Storm Cruiser, Glen Murphy; Rare Cure, Luis Quinonez; Halo Kris, Paul Nolan; L.A. Spider Legs, Don Simington; and favorite Mr Ross, Don Pettinger.

Fire brings Harris out of retirement

Jockey Buck Harris, who retired from riding last August, was forced to make a comeback last Friday night at Sam Houston after he lost his home and travel trailer in a fire Nov. 7. Harris had left racing to develop his farm in Missouri, but then the home he and his wife, Lisa, were rebuilding ignited and burned.

"It was such a horrible day," said Harris. "We lost everything in one day. We lost two residences. Thank goodness nobody was hurt."

Harris began preparing for a comeback soon after the fire. "I took it as a sign that that was not where I needed to be right now," said Harris.

To get back into race-riding shape, Harris said, said he began jogging eight to 10 miles a day, and said he never lost much fitness, anyway, as rebuilding the house kept him strong.

"I'm happy to be back, " he said. "When you get into horse racing, you can't get it out of you."

Last year, Harris finished fourth in the standings at Sam Houston. He has a few live mounts at the track on Friday's card.

* Devout Sinner, who took down her fourth consecutive stakes win last Saturday night when she captured the $50,000 Distaff at Sam Houston, could make her next start in the $50,000 Pippin at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 16, according to her owner and trainer, Joan Charlton.

* Texas NextStage, a 6,350-seat concert hall across from the stable entrance at Lone Star Park near Dallas, is to open Feb. 9 with a concert by Luis Miguel. One night later, B.B. King will appear. Lone Star is an equity partner in the project, which is scheduled to host several musical events when the track opens for racing in April.

* The Texas Thoroughbred Association's annual meeting and awards banquet will be held Saturday in Austin.