07/01/2002 11:00PM

Ross fields murderer's row of handicap stars

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AUBURN, Wash. - Trainer Sharon Ross has had a stranglehold on the handicap division this meet, winning the Seattle and the Fox Sports Net with Crowning Meeting and the Budweiser Emerald with Secret Launch, who narrowly held off Crowning Meeting after a mile in a near-track-record 1:33.40.

Now Ross appears to have a stranglehold, a full nelson, and a leg-lock on the older set. The reason is that Crowning Meeting and Secret Launch have been joined in the Ross stable by Moonlight Meeting and Radar Contact, stakes horses who Sharon's husband, Larry Ross, had been campaigning in northern California.

"Everybody's home now," Sharon Ross said. "Larry didn't really want to race on the fair circuit this year, and it's too expensive to keep horses in training down there without racing them, so he brought them all home a couple of weeks ago. Larry's going to take a little vacation and look after our farm, and I'll train the whole string until this meeting is over."

Ross wouldn't mind running all four of her older stakes stars in the same race, but that race would have to be the Grade 3 Longacres Mile on Aug. 25. Until then, she will probably fire just two or three shots at a time. For Thursday's Independence Day Handicap at 1 1/16 miles, she will load up with Secret Launch and Moonlight Meeting, who is coming off a second in the Grade 3 All-American Handicap at Bay Meadows on June 8.

"Crowning Meeting is 8 now, and it doesn't make sense for him to dance every dance, so this seemed like a good race for him to sit out," she explained. "Radar Contact has been off a while and we'd like to bring him back in a sprint, so he is aiming for the Governor's Handicap on Aug. 4.

"The other two should give us a strong hand for this race. Secret Launch came bouncing out of his last one and he worked five furlongs in 59 seconds last Thursday, so he is still on top of his game.

"Moonlight Meeting worked five furlongs in 58.40 on the same day, but they didn't work in company. He seems really sharp. Both he and Crowning Meeting are by General Meeting, but they have different personalities. The one thing those General Meetings have in common, though, is that when they are sharp they get really tough."

Lasting Code refuses to lose

Rider Kevin Radke admitted that he thought Lasting Code was going to get beaten in the final stages of Sunday's 1 1/16-mile Irish Day Handicap for 3-year-old fillies, and trainer Bob McMeans confessed that he thought she did get beaten.

In fact, she wasn't, and she didn't.

Lasting Code expended a great deal of energy chasing the pacesetting Dolly's Hit Lady through a fast six furlongs in 1:09.40, and she no sooner put Dolly's Hit Lady away at the top of the stretch when she was joined by Premo Copy. Those two battled head and head through the final furlong, then Ashbecca came on late to make it a crowd of three at the wire. All three were credited with a clocking of 1:43.80.

Only Lasting Code, the 8-5 favorite, was credited with the win, however, as the photo showed she finished a nose to the good of 28-1 shot Premo Copy, who maintained a head advantage over Ashbecca at 20-1.

The win signaled a return to form for Lasting Code, who had dominated her division at both Hastings Park and Emerald Downs before being sold to Jerre Paxton's Northwest Farms before the one-mile Kent Handicap on June 2, when she finished last of eight.

"I thought she had some excuses, but we'll probably never know for sure why she ran so badly last time," said McMeans. "I'm just relieved that she ran well in this one. She came out of that last race with a little problem and I wasn't able to train her the way I wanted, so maybe next time we'll see the real Lasting Code."

* Second-leading rider Ben Russell had to take off his mounts on Sunday after injuring his back before Saturday's last race, when his mount tipped over in the gate. Russell did not accept calls for Wednesday's racing, but is expected to return to the saddle on Friday.