03/08/2004 1:00AM

Skipaslew heads competitive field in El Camino Real

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ALBANY, Calif. - The two premier races of the Golden Gate Fields season are coming up, with the $200,000 Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on Saturday and $125,000 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sunday.

Although it was pushed back a week and will be run the same weekend as the San Felipe, a $250,000, Grade 3 race at Santa Anita, the El Camino will have a strong field and an interesting mix of local stars and invaders.

Skipaslew, a Southern California-based horse whose last three starts have come in Northern California, is the probable favorite going in. He has won the Gold Rush Stakes and Grade 3 Golden Gate Derby in his last two starts.

Also scheduled to run are O.K. Mikie, a local who finished second in the Golden Gate Derby and won the Golden State Mile; Wildwood Flower, a stakes-winning filly; Trevanian; and Kilgowan.

Mambo Train, the Turf Paradise Derby winner, and Dwango, from the connections of last year's El Camino winner, Ocean Terrace, are also listed as definites for the El Camino, a 1 1/16-mile race that has produced more than its share of classic winners.

Soud, who has been assigned 118 pounds, All the Boys, Gent, Ringaskiddy, and Bring Home Thegold are planning to run in the Golden Gate at 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Epicentre, who would be the highweight at 121 pounds, is considered possible for the race.

Hess's horse finally pays off

Cooperstown Hero was always cut out to be a nice horse. He was a $185,000 purchase as a yearling at Saratoga in 2000.

But he was as injury-plagued as he was talented and didn't make his first start until last Saturday, when he made his debut as a 5-year-old gelding in a bottom-level $8,000 claimer.

Although he broke slowly, Cooperstown Hero was able to outrace Roads West for the lead and pulled away through the stretch for a five-length victory.

The victory was a reward for trainer Bob Hess Sr., whose patience with Cooperstown Hero seemed almost infinite.

"If a horse can run, you don't mind waiting," Hess said. "If a horse can't run, you get rid of him. The ones that are difficult are the in-betweeners."

David Shimmon purchased Cooperstown Hero as a yearling and sent him to D. Wayne Lukas, but Cooperstown Hero couldn't handle training and had to be turned out.

He was eventually sent to Hess as a 3-year-old and was nearing a race.

"He worked 11 and change one day and just dusted a pretty decent horse," Hess said. "But he wasn't right, and we turned him out again for eight months."

Frustrated by the never-ending problems, Shimmon told Hess he could have Cooperstown Hero if he would pay the horse's boarding bills.

Hess agreed, but after Cooperstown Hero returned to his barn, he popped a splint last July. The splint was pin- fired and then became infected.

"I'd never seen that before," Hess said.

Hess began working him in September, but Cooperstown Hero suffered another minor setback and couldn't work again until this January. Hess had to plan works carefully because of wet track conditions but finally got Cooperstown Hero to the races.

"If he'd gotten claimed, I would have lost money," Hess said. "Now that he's won, it's a different game. I originally thought about starting him long. He's long-striding, and I might look for a seven-furlong race at Santa Anita."

Turfer favored on main track

Six 4-year-old fillies meet in Wednesday's Golden Gate Fields feature, a $25,000 claimer at 1 1/16 miles.

Turf specialist Alalila should be the one to beat, even though the race will be contested on the main track. She beat a field of $32,000 claimers two back and is pitted against her own age group today.

She comes from off the pace, but the race should be contentious early, with Lonesome Knight and A Reel Tizzy vying for the lead and Tender Trap and Gonetothedoctor sitting close.

Turf racing resumes Wednesday, with the first grass race in more than one month. Ec Lady looks the one to beat in a field of five fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles in a $12,500 starter allowance.

Track legend Red Lowry dies

F.A. "Red" Lowry, a former Golden Gate Fields track superintendent and trainer for more than 40 years, died in his Phoenix, Ariz., home of a heart attack last month. A New Jersey native, Lowry was 71.