06/24/2004 11:00PM

Rare Friends figures tough in small field


FORT ERIE, Ontario - Woodbine-based Rare Friends, Canada's champion 2-year-old male in 2001, will make his third Fort Erie start of the year in Sunday's six-furlong Niagara Falls Stakes.

Rare Friends ran here once last year, winning the Parnitha Stakes July 1, and is thus eligible for the "in-house" stakes program this season.

The Niagara Falls, restricted to runners who have made at least three starts at the Fort in 2003-2004, offers a base purse of $40,000.

There is an extra $20,000 available, for the top three Canadian-bred finishers, and all five entrants are eligible for the bonus.

Rare Friends, who has earned $735,734, began the year with an allowance win at Woodbine and followed with a similar score at Fort Erie.

A 5-year-old gelding, he then lost a race to Krz Ruckus, going five furlongs here June 12.

"Five furlongs is not really his game," said Bob Tiller, trainer and part-owner of Rare Friends. "He doesn't like to be sent. He prefers to stalk and have a breather."

There will be only four betting interests in the race as trainer Daryl Ezra will saddle an entry of Lucky Tec and Ashagio.

Lucky Tec won the restricted Expedite Plus, the first stakes race of the meeting, in his third and most recent start of the season on June 6.

The versatile Ashagio, last year's horse of the meet here, is cutting back after winning a 1 1/16-mile starter allowance here June 15.

Ezra thinks that Rare Friends is vulnerable.

"[Rare Friends] is a bad gate horse," he said. "They have to back him into the gate. And I noticed he has patches on his feet."

But Tiller, the Sovereign Award-winning trainer in 2001 and 2003, said he isn't worried.

"As a 2-year-old, he was trouble getting in the gate," said Tiller. "From day one, he was backed in.

"And he has had quarter cracks his whole career. We are always patching him. However, his feet are good right now."

Pinedale Star and Rundle complete the field. Rundle finished last in a turf sprint at Woodbine Wednesday night.