01/26/2002 12:00AM

Scratch benefits Wrangler

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - Saturday's $80,725 Paumonok Handicap at Aqueduct became an easier assignment for the five horses who ran when the morning-line favorite, Here's Zealous, was scratched early in the day because of a cough.

The significance of the scratch wasn't lost on trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who saddled the Paumonok's 2 3/4-length winner and even-money favorite, Wrangler. "That's a hell of a scratch," Jerkens said with a grin in the winner's circle on an unusually balmy winter afternoon.

Wrangler, with Aaron Gryder in the saddle, was never far back in the six-furlong Paumonok and surged to the lead just past the furlong marker. Wrangler streaked to the finish line over a fast track in a snappy 1:09.07 to win his first stakes race.

Late Carson finished second, a length ahead of Run Kush Run, who set the pace until midstretch and finished third. It was another 1 1/2 lengths back to Peeping Tom, the second choice and 119-pound highweight, in fourth. Kashatreya completed the order of finish.

Gryder said he rode Wrangler ($4.20) with confidence.

"I wasn't worried about when I'd get by [Run Kush Run]; I knew I'd get by him," Gryder said.

Jerkens began training Wrangler, a 4-year-old son of Carson City, for owner Frank Stronach late last year. In Wrangler's first start for Jerkens, the colt romped in a third-level allowance race on New Year's Day.

Wrangler's woolly winter coat concerned Jerkens because of the recent warm weather in New York.

"I was debating about clipping him between races, but he was doing so well I didn't want to change anything," Jerkens said.

Jerkens said he would consider the $200,000 General George at Laurel on Feb. 18 for Wrangler.

"Seven furlongs might fit him nice the way he kicked in," Jerkens said.