04/21/2005 11:00PM

Rivals enter ring for Round 5

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AUBURN, Wash. - The voting for last season's sprinter of the meeting title ended in a tie between Willie the Cat and Slewicide Cruise, and that was only fair.

Willie the Cat was brilliant early in the meet, winning a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race in a world-record 1:01.20, then posting front-running wins in the six-furlong Seattle Handicap and the Fox Sports Net Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Just about the time Willie the Cat began to tail off, Slewicide Cruise stepped forward with back-to-back wins in a $40,000 optional claiming event at 6 1/2 furlongs and the Chinook Pass Handicap at six furlongs. He polished off his campaign with an easy win in the six-furlong Inaugural Handicap at Portland Meadows.

For the year, Willie the Cat and Slewicide Cruise split four head-to-head sprint match-ups. Slewicide Cruise was second to Willie the Cat in his world-record performance and in the Fox Sports Net, while Willie the Cat was third to Slewicide Cruise's second in the five-furlong Owner's Handicap on Longacres Mile Day and fifth in the Chinook Pass.

The two rivals face each other at a sprint distance for the fifth time in Sunday's $40,000 Seattle Handicap at six furlongs, and the outcome figures to hinge on which horse is better prepared to produce his top effort. In that regard, they also are hard to separate.

Trainer Tim McCanna said Willie the Cat has come back strong after getting the entire winter off.

"He was just training so-so until a couple of weeks ago, then he jumped up and worked the best he has ever worked for me," said McCanna. "He went five furlongs in 59.80 on a muddy track, but it wasn't so much the time that impressed me. He just did it so easy, and he was looking for more to do at the end of it."

McCanna said Willie the Cat has since logged two more strong workouts, including a six-furlong drill in company with Pool Boy, and appears to be coming up to the Seattle at the top of his game.

Trainer Robbie Baze is equally enthusiastic about Slewicide Cruise's condition.

"He finished his last campaign so strong that we were tempted to go on with him, but we decided to save him for this meeting, and I think that was the right decision," said Baze. "He seems to have come back at least as well as he left. He has gotten better every year and I'm hoping he can keep that up. He is 5 now and he has stayed sound, so I'm thinking he has a chance to have a really big year."

Southern Cal invader Siren Lure also live

Willie the Cat and Slewicide Cruise will be challenged on Sunday by newcomer Siren Lure, a winner of 3 of his 7 starts in Southern California. Siren Lure, a 4-year-old son of Joyeux Danseur, comes off a game front-running win against $62,500 rivals going 6 1/2 furlongs on turf at Santa Anita on March 25, when he was claimed by trainer Keith Bennett for the partnership of Carraway, Jemberg, and Stephenson.

"He was a lightly raced 4-year-old with good form, and we thought he had the potential to improve," said Bennett. "He has already shown he is a nice sprinter, and I think we'll be able to stretch him out, too."

Bennett said he is still learning about his new charge, but that he likes what he has seen from him so far.

"I've been impressed with how responsive he is in the mornings," he said. "His wins have come on the front end, but he really seems like kind of a push-button horse. I really don't think he is a one-dimensional speed horse. I think he'll be comfortable coming from off the pace if he needs to do that."

Bennett, who is fifth in the trainer standings at Turf Paradise with 36 wins from 136 starters (26 percent), didn't ship here for one race. He said he intends to campaign at Emerald throughout the summer.

"I think the racing here fits my program, or at least I hope it will," he said. "I brought four horses with me, and I plan to have 15 or 20 within the next two weeks."

Bennett, the son of trainer Phil Bennett, is a native of Utah who began training in Wyoming about 20 years ago. He was the leading trainer at Boise for several years before moving his base of operations to Turf Paradise.

* Track superintendent Wayne Damron and his crew first leveled and then rototilled the track to a depth of 2 1/2 inches on Wednesday night, which resulted in markedly slower workout times on Thursday mornings. While two horses shaded 46 seconds when working a half-mile on Wednesday, Thursday's quickest half-mile workout was 48.80. If the past is a guide, the track will tighten up considerably for this weekend's racing, though it may not be as glib as it was on opening weekend.