10/31/2002 1:00AM

Sunlit Ridge and African Princess face off


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Statebred stakes races aren't supposed to showcase the top talent in a region, but Saturday's $30,000 Eleanora Sears Handicap at Suffolk Downs will match two of the best female runners in New England in a sprint for Massachusetts-breds.

Both Sunlit Ridge and African Princess are coming off layoffs and returning to their home track. Both are also stars of their two highly successful Bay State pedigree lines.

Sunlit Ridge has been off since September, when she finished third in the Graf Handicap at Rockingham against open company. She is looking for her second statebred stakes victory of the year after winning the Sunset Gun Handicap during Suffolk's spring season.

Trainer John Rigattieri will start the 4-year-old Sunlit Ridge over the dirt for the first time since April and at a sprint distance for the first time since March.

African Princess, who hasn't raced since the close of the Suffolk meet in June, will bid for her fourth career victory from seven starts. Two of her victories have come in stakes races, including a win in the Helena Stakes last April against open company - good enough to earn the year's 3-year-old filly award from the New England Turf Writers.

African Princess's family is so strong in the Massachusetts-bred program that she raced in a stakes named after a relative, African Prince. Her sixth-place finish in that race, though, was the worst of her career so far. This will be her first start against older foes for owner trainer Tim Kirby.

While Sunlit Ridge and African Princess have grabbed the headlines in most of their starts, Big Miss has a habit of stealing the pot come race day. A 6-year-old mare, she brings the biggest bankroll in the field for the Gal Sal Stable Inc. and trainer Donald Caroli and will make the 61st start of her career. She exits a confidence-boosting win Oct. 12 against allowance competition.

The major names in the race all are better suited to longer distances, making Conlua a speedy danger. A 5-year-old mare trained by Lori Lockhart, Conlua has won her last three victories with wire-to-wire performances.

Little Carbon, Symmetry Slew, and Classylilprincess round out the field.

* Tejano Couture, one of New England's iron horses and the leading horse in North America with 11 wins this year, makes his 24th start of 2002 on Saturday in a $16,000 claimer. An 8-year-old former graded stakes runner, he holds a two-win edge over his nearest pursuer.

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