11/01/2004 1:00AM

Sir Cherokee best in Ack Ack Handicap


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sir Cherokee, winless since taking the Maxxam Gold Cup in January at Sam Houston, regained top form in beating odds-on favorite Fire Slam by 5.25 lengths in the opening-day Grade 3, $163,500 at Churchill Downs Sunday.

Racing for the first time since undergoing surgery this summer to remove bone chips in both front ankles, Sir Cherokee ran like a horse rebuilt, rallying five-wide from last and powering past the opposition. The winner, a 4-year-old son of Cherokee Run owned and bred by Domino Stud, raced 7.5 furlongs in 1:29.48, paying $14.80.

Fire Slam, winner of the Grade 2 Riva Ridge earlier this year, also rallied well in finishing second, a neck in front of longshot Slate Run, a horse that had been claimed for $15,000 in June.

The Ack Ack came about a year and a half after his connections hoped an important Churchill Downs stakes victory would. Sir Cherokee was entered in the 2003 Kentucky Derby after winning the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, but was scratched when he suffered an ankle injury the day before the race. He returned to racing last fall with a victory in an allowance race at Churchill Downs and began 2004 with a victory in a stakes race in Texas, but then suffered five consecutive losses before he underwent ankle surgery in June.

"This colt has had such tough luck - beginning Derby Day (of 2003) everything went downhill," said winning trainer Mike Tomlinson. "He never was the same horse until the layoff this time."

A quick pace of the Ack Ack set up the Sir Cherokee's closing kick. Cappuchino, winner of the 2003 Ack Ack, sped to a contested early lead with an opening quarter in: 22.82 and a half-mile in: 45.49.

"At the three-eighths pole I knew it was just a matter of how far (I was going to win)," said jockey Calvin Borel.

The win was the fourth for Borel in the 12-year history of the race. He also won the Ack Ack in 1996, 1998 and 1999.