03/01/2004 1:00AM

Spirit o' War should be closer to pace


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Spirit o' War, who has won both of his races since returning from an 11-month layoff in January, makes his first start outside Southern California on Wednesday in the featured eighth race at Oaklawn Park.

An entry-level allowance, the 1 1/16-mile race drew a field of 10.

Spirit o' War, who is 5, figures to go favored for his sharp form. He won his maiden by seven lengths at Santa Anita on Jan. 9, then came back to beat winners in a starter allowance at the track Feb. 13.

He arrived at Oaklawn last Thursday aboard a flight bringing Number Juan to Oaklawn for last Saturday's $100,000 Southwest Stakes.

"He seems to be handling his surroundings fine," trainer Ralph Nicks said.

Nicks, who was named private trainer for Spirit o' War's owner, Team Valor, last fall, will be saddling the gelding for the first time. Spirit o' War won his last two races for trainer Jenine Sahadi.

His maiden score came on the front end, when he drew off by seven lengths to win a seven-furlong race in 1:22. Spirit o' War stretched out to a mile in his last start and raced much farther back, but managed to get up for a half-length win in 1:37.20.

"Evidently he didn't have a good beginning last trip," said Nicks, who will review a tape of the race before Wednesday. "He still overcame it and won. I mean, he was eighth by 13 [lengths] the first call."

With a better start, Spirit o' War should be much closer to the pace Wednesday. He has natural speed, and gets that from his pedigree. Spirit o' War is by Boston Harbor and out of an Apalachee mare who also produced Grade 3-winning sprinter Disco Rico, an earner of $532,244.

Nicks has given the mount to Rodney Trader.

Leading trainer Cole Norman has two bullets. Pike Place Gold last raced at Delaware Park, while Ba Ba Boom ships in from Fair Grounds. The horses are each making their first starts for Norman. "I think we should see a good effort from both of them," he said.

Pike Place Gold fits the profile of a winner that Norman sent out last Friday. Just like Park West, who won his maiden last week, Pike Place Gold made his last start at Delaware in October. Ba Ba Boom, a maiden winner at Churchill, has speed, and Norman noted he is out of a mare by Explosive Wagon.

"That's my dad's old horse," said Norman, son of the late trainer Gene Norman. "He went to the Derby and the Breeders' Cup."