01/22/2004 12:00AM

Sir Cherokee inspiring confidence

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - When a minor injury forced Sir Cherokee to withdraw from last year's Kentucky Derby just two days before the race, it was heartbreaking for all connected with the colt. But fast-forward nine months and disappointment has been replaced by optimism.

Sir Cherokee, who won last year's Arkansas Derby, looks like a top handicap horse in the making. He was a smashing winner of the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park on Saturday, and next month is headed to the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds. His other major objective is the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 3.

Sir Cherokee is based at Oaklawn, and returned to the track on Thursday for the first time since the Maxxam. In that race he was prominent from the start, which was a stark contrast to his usual closing style.

"I was a little bit surprised, initially, when I saw him out on the front end, but then when I looked at the pace I saw why," said Mike Tomlinson, who trains Sir Cherokee for Domino Stud.

"In the future, it looks like we don't have to be one-dimensional."

Beyond showing more early speed than usual, Sir Cherokee also showed grit in the Maxxam by reclaiming the lead after losing it in the stretch to Grade 2 winner Freefourinternet.

The race was his third straight victory, including last year's Arkansas Derby. Sir Cherokee was sidelined in May with a small condylar fracture in his lower right hind leg. Surgery was not required, and the time off he had to heal seems to have served him well.

"He's matured a lot mentally," said Tomlinson. "The things that he used as excuses to get himself beat as a 2-year-old are no longer really a factor. He's very professional."

Tomlinson said Sir Cherokee came out of the Maxxam in good order, and he could start next in the Grade 3, $100,000 Whirlaway at Fair Grounds on Feb. 1 before the New Orleans Handicap on Feb. 29. Long-term, Tomlinson would like to see Sir Cherokee advance to the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30.

"We'll make that determination as we take each step forward," said Tomlinson. "You don't play this game without being an optimist, and I'm going to continue to assume that this horse is a quality horse until he proves me different.

"We're going to continue to move him back up the ladder in graded stakes company, and hopefully he'll answer that goal."

Sir Cherokee, a son of Cherokee Run, has won 5 of 12 starts and $488,310.

Optional claimer a preview of Essex

The eighth race at Oaklawn on Saturday offers a first look at some of the handicap horses on the grounds, and it should produce starters for the $100,000 Essex on Feb. 21.

Ask the Lord, who has won his last three starts, is one of a number of stakes winners in the $75,000 optional claimer. The race will be run over one mile, and at that distance, the race will begin and end at the sixteenth pole.

Others in the race include Patton's Victory, who won Grade 3 Fifth Season last year at Oaklawn; Added Edge, the 2002 2-year-old champion in Canada; Crowned King, who won the Rebel Stakes last year at Oaklawn; and Roar of the Tiger, a full brother to Giant's Causeway.

Meche out six weeks

Jockey Lonnie Meche, who was set to ride the Oaklawn meet, broke his collarbone Wednesday and will be out for six weeks, according to his agent, Richie Price.

"We want to make the tail end of Oaklawn," said Price.

Meche was injured while riding a dirt bike. He came to Oaklawn from Fair Grounds, and was booked to ride seven horses on the opening day card Friday, including Crypto's Best in the $50,000 Dixie Belle.

* Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine, will generate about $1 million for purses this meet, according to Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. Close to $50 million was handled on Instant Racing in 2003. The growth of the product has led to a recent expansion of the Instant Racing room, with a total of 200 game terminals at Oaklawn.