10/29/2003 1:00AM

Shooting for next level in two stakes


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Outside of a tight core of horsemen and racing fans, very few people have even heard of the horses who will run this weekend in twin 2-year-old stakes at Churchill Downs.

That's to be expected. What is also to be expected is that the top finishers in the Pocahontas Stakes and Iroquois Stakes should become substantially more familiar to the racing public by what they accomplish this weekend.

The Pocahontas and Iroquois, which have become a traditional sister-brother combination at Churchill on the weekend after the Breeders' Cup, tend to serve as reminders that some pretty good 2-year-olds just aren't as developed as some of their alreadyfamous classmates. Indeed, horsemen appear to be clamoring for the chance to give some of their more promising 2-year-olds a chance to do some catchingup this weekend: Both the Pocahontas on Saturday and Iroquois on Sunday are expected to attract large fields.

The $100,000 Pocahontas, run at one mile out of the chute, could have any of a handful of fillies as the favorite, including In Rome, Sweet Jo Jo, Stellar Jayne, or an intriguing invader from Florida named Marina de Chavon. The other probable starters are Hot Mail, Quick Start, Request Denied, Secret Patriot, Sister Star, Storming Way, and Turn to Lass.

Likewise, the $100,000 Iroquois, which also is run out of the chute at a mile, figures as a highly contentious betting race. Pro Prado, unbeaten in two sprints for Bob Holthus, is one of the likely favorites.

"He's done everything right so far," said Holthus. "He's got a right to get better with more ground. We're pretty excited about him."

Other logical contenders include The Cliff's Edge and War Image, the sixth and eighth finishers in the recent Breeders' Futurity, and the John Ward trainer Grand Score, a Keeneland maiden winner who will be ridden by Pat Day. The other probables are Affirmlode, Blushing Indian, Bustin' Out, Five Card Monty, Korbyn Gold, and Mutachi.

The Pocahontas and Iroquois serve as respective preps for Churchill's twin closing-day features, the $200,000 Golden Rod and $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 29.

Fair Grounds the plan for Clock Stopper

Trainer Dallas Stewart said he has no regrets about missing the Breeders' Cup Sprint with Clock Stopper, the Overbrook Farm gelding who missed the race because of a minor ankle injury.

Clock Stopper finished second by just three-quarters of a length to eventual BC Sprint winner Cajun Beat in the Sept. 13 Kentucky Cup Sprint. Cajun Beat did not race again until the BC Sprint, but Clock Stopper posted a sharp come-from-behind triumph in the Oct. 10 Perryville Stakes at Keeneland.

"The way the Breeders' Cup set up, I don't know how we could've beaten Cajun Beat," said Stewart. "He ran like a wild horse."

Stewart said Clock Stopper had "the tiniest chip" taken out of a left front ankle during recent surgery but is expected to rejoin the Stewart stable at Fair Grounds on Jan. 1. "Maybe having to stop on him was a blessing in disguise," said Stewart.

Bottom level higher in fall

For the most part, the racing program at Churchill does not vary much from spring to fall. But there are at least a few subtle changes, including raising the bottom claiming level from $5,000 in the spring to $8,000 in the fall.

"In the spring, you need every horse you can get your hands on," said racing secretary Doug Bredar, noting that the spring meet is longer - 10 weeks versus five - "and you also don't have nearly as many horses at your disposal because so many 2-year-olds just aren't ready to run at that time of year."

A perusal of the Churchill barn area right now, said Bredar, would reveal that "just about every horse is ready."

In general, there are fewer races for cheaper horses in the fall.

"It's a matter of being in the position of not having to use as many races for them," said Bredar.

* Veteran jockeys Mark Guidry and Rene Douglas will not be riding regularly at the Churchill meet. Both are taking time off or will be riding elsewhere before Gulfstream Park begins Jan. 3.

* Yell, winner of the Raven Run at Keeneland, is among 27 fillies and mares nominated to the lone stakes here next weekend, the Nov. 8 Churchill Downs Distaff. Day will have the mount on Yell if trainer Shug McGaughey chooses to send her here from New York.

* As everyday fans at Churchill try to adapt to the ongoing renovation project, some have found that being displaced from their customary surroundings havs turned their world upside-down. "All my usual hangouts are gone," owner-breeder Alex Rankin said Wednesday. "I feel homeless."