05/12/2004 11:00PM

Soaring Free, proven on the turf, returns to dirt

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BALTIMORE - Figuring there is no better time than the present, Mark Frostad shipped Soaring Free to Pimlico this week to find out what kind of options they might have as the year unfolds.

An accomplished turf runner, will return to dirt for the first time in nearly a year when favored against nine other sprinters Saturday in the 18th running of the $200,000 Maryland Breeders' Cup.

"It would be nice to have the option of turf or dirt," said Frostad, who trains Soaring Free for breeder-owner Sam-Son Farm. "If he's still on top of his game at the end of the year, maybe we could run in either the Sprint or the Mile [in the Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup]. Now is a good time to find out if we might have those choices."

Soaring Free, with Shane Sellers to ride, will break from post 9 in the six-furlong Maryland BC, which directly precedes the Preakness as the 11th of 13 races. In his last start, Soaring Free returned from a 5 1/2-month layoff to dominate the Grade 3 Shakertown, a turf sprint at Keeneland last month.

The Shakertown was the seventh straight grass start for Soaring Free, a 5-year-old Smart Strike gelding. Before that, Soaring Free began his career with eight races on dirt. Frostad noted that Soaring Free recorded a 109 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest of his career, when capturing an allowance sprint last June on the Woodbine main track. Overall, Soaring Free has won 8 of 15 starts and more than $875,000.

If for some reason Soaring Free does not perform to his usual high standard Saturday, his potential conquerors are plentiful. Each of his opponents has registered at least one triple-digit Beyer in his career, most notably Gators N Bears, a remarkably consistent New Jersey-bred who earned 100-plus Beyers in eight of his last nine starts. Gators N Bears, a 4-year-old colt based at Laurel Park with owner-trainer Leo Nechamkin, has earned more than $375,000 by finishing no worse than third in 18 of 20 career starts.

Other contenders include Iron Halo, an up-and-comer based in California with Eric Kruljac; Sassy Hound, an earner of $600,000 for Toby Roth and trainer Ben Feliciano Jr.; and Gracious Humor, a winner in five of eight races.

The 1999 Maryland BC was the race during which a deranged spectator went out onto the track and disrupted the field as the horses charged down the stretch. The man was quickly apprehended.