05/28/2002 12:00AM

Ross happy to have favorite 9-year-old back

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AUBURN, Wash. - There was a happy reunion at trainer Sharon Ross's barn at Emerald Downs around the first of February when Military Force, a 9-year-old who had been with Ross since the beginning of his career, returned after an absence of five months. On Saturday, Military Force made his first start for Ross since returning to her barn.

Military Force had been claimed away by trainer Clint Harris for $12,500 on Sept. 8.

"I've never been so upset about having a horse claimed," said Ross. "We claim horses and I understand the claiming game, but to claim away an 8-year-old who had been with us forever, well, it really bothered me.

"It so happened that I had just won a $1,000 bonus for being the trainer of the marathon series champion, so I went to Clint and offered that $1,000 plus the $12,500 claiming price to get him back. But he wouldn't go for it."

Owner George Sedlock had purchased Military Force as a yearling from breeder Dean Essex. Sedlock told the breeder he hoped Military Force would turn out just like Military Hawk - like Military Force a son of Colonel Stevens - who earned $686,128 for Sedlock after being purchased from Essex. From that comment, Military Force was nicknamed "Ditto."

Ditto didn't duplicate Military Hawk's feats, but he did win 11 races and over $130,000 before being claimed away, and he became a barn favorite. Though Sedlock advised Ross to "get over" the loss of a favorite horse, she vowed to get the horse back.

It wasn't easy, however, because Military Force was sent to West Virginia's Mountaineer Park, where he was sold privately and raced for higher claiming prices than Ross could afford. But after three poor efforts, the gelding was dropped to the $5,000 level on Nov. 25, and Ross sprang into action.

"I got together a group of owners who would chip in $1,000 apiece, and I arranged to claim him through a trainer I knew back there," she said. "Then I called George just as a courtesy, to let him know what I was doing, and he decided he wanted to be the one to claim him, and that's the way we did it.

"We were quite a happy group when he finally arrived back at the barn. He was nickering and saying hi to all his buddies, and we had a big celebration."

It would be nice to report that Military Force immediately returned to his winning ways on Saturday. Instead, he tired to finish last after setting the pace in a mile race for $10,000 claimers. But Ross is confident that the gelding will return to form and she thinks he can race for at least another year.

When he retires, Military Force will join a growing band of pensioners that the trainer and her husband, Larry Ross, keep on their farm. The group includes former Longacres Mile winner Chum Salmon, Military Hawk, and the prolific winners Secret of Damascus, Marketal, Erin's Lord and Brandon's Brandy.

"Larry says we can't retire him until one of the other horses dies, because we're running out of room," said Ross. "He's just joking, though. We'll always have room for Ditto."

Making up for lost time

Always a Dixie, who didn't begin her racing career until last year at age 4, has caught up with the best of her class. The Dixieland Brass mare demonstrated that with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over 10 foes in Sunday's $35,000 Washington State Legislator's Handicap.

It was the first stakes victory for Always a Dixie, who is based at Hastings Park. She defeated the favored Neon Queen by a nose after 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.20, paying $52.60 to win.

"We have always thought she was a really nice horse, but she had a lot of catching up to do after her late start," said trainer Barbara Heads.

* Bold Ranger confirmed his quality in the holiday weekend's other stakes at Emerald, winning Monday's 6 1/2-furlong Pepsi-Cola Handicap for 3-year-olds by a half-length over the favored Flying Notes in a track record-equaling 1:13.80. A modest $4,200 yearling purchase, Bold Ranger won the six-furlong Auburn Stakes in his prior outing and now ranks as the undisputed divisional leader at Emerald.