10/26/2001 12:00AM

Rare Friends goes for the title


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - A 2-year-old champion could be crowned at Woodbine when unbeaten Rare Friends clashes with El Soprano in Sunday's $250,000 Coronation Futurity, the country's richest race for Canadian-bred juveniles.

Rare Friends has won all four of his starts on the front end for trainer Bob Tiller. Perhaps his best effort was two starts ago in the seven-furlong Simcoe Stakes, in which he shrugged off an early challenge before cruising to an easy 2 3/4-length triumph in 1:24.

Rare Friends was reluctantly loaded into the gate last time out in the seven-furlong Swynford Stakes. He proceeded to break slowly and was hard-pressed to hold off the maiden Grimer in deep stretch, but still prevailed by three-quarters of a length in a gutsy performance.

Rare Friends's bad gate manners have been an ongoing concern for Tiller, who said the gate crew is going to try something different with him in the Coronation.

"They're going to back him into the gate from the front this time," Tiller said. "He's been good in the mornings when they've backed him in. It's the starter's decision. We're hoping that it helps him."

Rare Friends will make his first start around two turns in the 1 1/8-mile Coronation. Tiller said he is optimistic that the gelding will handle the distance.

"I really think he'll go long," Tiller said. "He worked very well the other day, nice and evenly. I've been trying to get him to relax. He's in good order, and I think he'll run a big one. If he wins it, he's the champ. There's no other way it can be."

El Soprano finished a distant third behind Rare Friends in his debut on the main track, and subsequently graduated in a seven-furlong grass race.

El Soprano overcame a troubled journey to beat a stellar field in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes, and is coming off a near-miss in the Cup and Saucer Stakes, another grass race. He awaited room on the rail in the stretch of the Cup and Saucer and was angled wide in deep stretch, only to have his late surge fall a nose short.

Trainer Kevin Attard said he was disappointed with the Cup and Saucer result. "I thought he was best," Attard said. "It was a hard race to swallow. I was hoping that he'd get an outside trip, but it didn't work out that way."

Attard has no qualms with running El Soprano long on dirt. "I think the farther he goes, the better it will be for him," he said.