03/01/2005 1:00AM

Spruce Run takes a few steps back

Spruce Run goes in an optional claimer Thursday after two tries against Grade 3 company.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - After facing Grade 3 competition in his last two starts, Spruce Run will get some welcome class relief and may prove the one to beat in Thursday's wide-open $39,000 optional claiming race at 1 1/16 miles on the grass.

A 7-year-old son of Repriced, Spruce Run concluded his 2004 campaign with a fifth-place finish after leading to midstretch in the Grade 3 Cliff Hanger Handicap at The Meadowlands. In his first start this year, he finished eighth following an eventful trip in the Grade 3 Appleton Handicap here Feb. 12.

"He didn't get a great trip in the Appleton," said trainer Linda Rice. "He got too far back off a slow pace, although admittedly it was a tough place to start him out off a four-month layoff, and he figured to need the race. Let's hope we can call that race a throwout and a good prep for this one."

is the richest member of the field for Thursday's main event, with earnings of over $365,000 for the Golden Dome Stable. He won once in nine tries last year, a neck decision over Stormy Roman in Monmouth's Elkwood Stakes.

"He had a good year and probably could have done even better, but ran into a little bad luck on occasion," Rice said. "We like to give him a breather every season, and I don't think he's shown any signs of tailing off yet, even though he's 7 now. I picked him out as a yearling, and we've had a lot of fun with him over the years."

Spruce Run figures to get a good stalking trip from his inside post under jockey Eibar Coa, with the main speed in the race likely to come from Much Respect.

, who also drops out of Grade 3 company, and stakes winners Final Prophecy and Grand Heritage should prove major factors through the stretch.

Change Course finished a late-running fourth in the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida Handicap here earlier in the session. Trained by H. Graham Motion, Change Course won three races last year, including a first-level allowance race here during the spring.

upset the Bonnie Heath Turf Cup at Calder in November and is coming off a third-place finish behind Mustanfar under similar optional claiming conditions Feb. 10.

Grand Heritage won a division of the Paterson Stakes at The Meadowlands for trainer Bill Mott near the tail end of his 3-year-old campaign last year, but he will be facing older horses for only the second time Thursday.