07/25/2002 11:00PM

Ross's formidable duo set for Mt. Rainier


AUBURN, Wash. - Trainer Sharon Ross has thoroughly dominated the handicap ranks this season at Emerald Downs, winning the Seattle and Fox Sports Net with Crowning Meeting, the Budweiser-Emerald with Secret Launch, and the Independence Day with Moonlight Meeting.

There is little reason to suppose the trainer's domination will end anytime soon, least of all in Sunday's Mt. Rainier Breeders' Cup Handicap at nine furlongs. With no outsiders taking the $100,000 bait, the Ross-trained duo of Crowning Meeting and Moonlight Meeting will be the 120-pound co-highweights, a full four pounds above the next horse on the weight list.

The 8-year-old Crowning Meeting and the 7-year-old Moonlight Meeting, both by General Meeting, will not be coupled in the wagering, though that would have been the case a couple of years ago. At that time both horses raced under the purple and gold silks of University of Washington fans George and Norma Sedlock. Now Moonlight Meeting carries the red and gray colors of Washington State University for Rick Beal.

"At that time Moonlight Meeting wasn't running well, and George decided to sell him," Ross said. "We didn't want him to leave our barn, so we asked Rick if he would be interested, and he jumped at the chance to buy him.

"Rick likes to say that he turned around as soon as he got to carry the Cougar colors, but I'm not sure it happened quite that fast."

In any case, Moonlight Meeting is going in exceptionally sharp form now.

He ran a strong second in the Grade 3 All American Handicap at Bay Meadows in June before shipping here for the Independence Day, where he caught a loose-on-the-lead Sabertooth near the wire to score a half-length victory in 1:41.40.

"He is on a roll now, and when older horses get on a roll they get really confident," Ross said. "He has been a wildcat around the barn, and he worked five furlongs in 57.80 on Sunday. He's just doing super."

Ross said she is equally pleased with Crown Meeting's progress.

"He skipped the Independence Day, so he is coming into this race fresh, and I expect him to show more speed than usual," Ross said, referring to Crown meeting. "He is not as proven at 1 1/8 miles as Moonlight Meeting, but he is such a push-button horse that I can't imagine that he won't get the distance.

"I'd hate to try to chose between them. I think they'll both be really tough."

Ross will by no means deplete her ammunition by firing two shots in the Mt. Rainier Breeders' Cup. She is keeping Secret Launch in reserve for next Sunday's Governor's Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs. The Budweiser-Emerald winner will be joined by two more recent arrivals at the Ross barn: Northern California stakes star Radar Contact, who races for the Sedlocks, and the sharp Southern California sprinter Alfarune, who goes for Savario Farm and Logan Garrison.

"All five of them are pointing for the Longacres Mile, and we'll just have to see who gets there," Ross said. "Nothing would please me more than having them all make it."

Penney duo should offer challenge

Ross isn't the only trainer who will have two entrants in Sunday's stakes. Jim Penney will saddle Sabertooth, the certain pacesetter, and the long-fused Jade Green.

"With Sabertooth, it is mainly a question of getting him to relax and slow down, and we've been encouraged by the progress he has made," Penney said.

"There's still a big question of whether he can go 1 1/8 miles against this quality of competition, but he is lightly raced and improving, so there is hope."

Penney said he is confident Jade Green can handle the distance.

"We feel that Jade Green is a genuine nine-furlong horse," he said. "We just hope he is tight enough and sharp enough. He skipped the Independence Day because we didn't feel he was doing well at that time, but he seems to have come back around now, and we hope he'll run well."

Horatio could be possible upsetter

Among the most intriguing entrants in the Mt. Rainier is last year's Gottstein Futurity winner, Horatio, who will be making his third start as a 3-year-old under a feathery 110 pounds.

Horatio ran a promising third to the undefeated Willie the Cat in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race on June 15, then finished fifth of 10 in the 1 1/16-mile Burnaby Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hastings Park, his most recent outing on June 29.

"He had a horrible trip in Vancouver," said Grant Forster, assistant to trainer Dave Forster. "A horse pulled up in front of him, and he got stopped dead in his tracks, but we were encouraged that he came on again to pass half the field in the final quarter mile.

"This race fits his schedule, and the distance suits him, plus he gets in light and there are no out-of-state invaders.

"He'll still need to show improvement to be competitive with Sharon's horses," he said, referring to trainer Sharon Ross's favored duo. "But we feel he has a lot of quality."