07/31/2002 12:00AM

Speedsters to go eye-to-eye in Lyttle


SANTA ROSA, Calif. - One thing seems sure about Friday's $40,000-added James F. Lyttle Memorial Handicap at the Sonoma County Fair: At some point Federal Highway and Rio's Chase are likely to hook up well in front of the other four runners.

Federal Highway, who drew post 5, comes off a rapid wire-to-wire victory July 1 at Pleasanton. He will make his stakes and route debut in Friday's 1 1/16-mile race.

Rio's Chase also comes off a wire-to-wire victory, in the July 3 Pleasanton Handicap at Friday's distance. He breaks from the post 6.

Federal Highway has two wins and two seconds in four starts - a win and a second in two starts since being purchased in Florida by trainer Brent Sumja.

"He has so much natural ability, as much as any horse I've ever had. He could be absolutely anything," Sumja said.

"He's not a big, good-looking horse, but he can run. The best sign is when your exercise rider comes back and says he went 49 and he really went 47."

Trainer Bill Delia may not match Sumja's superlatives when discussing Rio's Chase, but he likes him.

"I claimed him from his first start," Delia said. "He had been in for $12,500 and was scratched and brought back for $20,000. I'd been looking at that level, and I was interested in a couple horses in that race. The fact that they'd brought him back for $20,000 told me they must think something of him. When I looked at him before the race, he looked like a million dollars."

While Federal Highway showed good form immediately, winning a maiden race in his debut, it took Rio's Chase four starts to record his first victory. He has now won three of nine starts with a pair of seconds.

Rio's Chase is not the easiest of horses to work with. He doesn't change leads while racing or in workouts.

"I can't explain why he doesn't change leads," Delia said. "If he gets it together [and changes leads], it might help. We work with him in the morning, but I don't force him to change leads. He's a big, long-striding horse, and now he's getting things together."

Rio's Chase, says Delia, is also "a little headstrong." He has switched equipment and now uses draw reins, which help keep the gelding's head down when he runs.

The two geldings seem to be the speed of the race, with Federal Highway having run faster fractions than Rio's Chase.

"I don't look who's in the race. There's nothing I worry about except one horse," Sumja said.

Delia is aware of Federal Highway's speed but is not particularly worried.

"This horse doesn't need to be on the lead," he said of Rio's Chase. "[Rio's Chase] is an aggressive horse, and, definitely, my horse will test [Federal Highway]."

Both geldings have bullet works since their last race.

"If he repeats his last race, he'll be tough," Delia said.

Sumja is concerned that Federal Highway is trying two turns for the first time.

"We're hoping for big things from him," Sumja said. "He has a chance to be special."