12/13/2001 1:00AM

Too many fillies to fit into the gate


NEW ORLEANS - Trainers were breaking down the doors Thursday to run their 3-year-old fillies in an age-restricted race on Saturday. The $100,000 Pago Hop, one of the last stakes races of the season for 3-year-old fillies, drew an overflow field of 19 when entries were taken Thursday at Fair Grounds.

Fourteen of those horses will be permitted to start Saturday, a number that will further dwindle if the Pago Hop, scheduled for about one mile on turf, is moved to the main track because of rain.

Strangely, the filly who might have been favored on turf - Sweet Prospect - and the filly to beat on dirt - Lakenheath, were among the five that did not make it into the body of the field. Others may be eliminated because of their draw. With a fairly short run to the first turn, fillies that drew outside posts will be at a decided disadvantage.

These include the unbeaten Cherry Hill Road, who drew post 13, and Soundtrack, the Ontario Colleen Handicap winner this summer, who has the 14 post. Cherry Hill Road, who comes out of a pair of dirt sprints, is likely to show speed in an effort to avoid losing ground. She has the pedigree, by Dynaformer out of a Mr. Prospector mare, to be effective on the grass, and has shown high-class ability in her short career for owners Eugene and Laura Melnyk and trainer Phil England.

Bettors, who will find no shortage of options in the Pago Hop, may settle on Sheppard's Watch as the favorite. Sheppard's Watch has made two starts in this country, a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup Handicap, and a third-place finish Oct. 13 in the $200,000 Calder Oaks. With high-profile turf trainer Chris Clement calling the shots, and Craig Perret riding, Sheppard's Watch's form is likely to attract significant play.

There is no shortage of pace in the Pago Hop, potential trouble for front-runners such as logical contender La Recherche, and the race should set up for a closer like Sheppard's Watch. But a short price on a shipper who has not raced since October is not especially appealing. Twilight Tryst will offer substantially better odds, and she has shown enough ability to finish third in a Grade 3 turf race this summer, the Pucker Up at Arlington.

Trainer Hugh Robertson attributed Twilight Tryst's short-odds loss last month at Hawthorne to a bad trip, and Twilight Tryst, who should appreciate the long stretch at Fair Grounds, has worked well since shipping in to New Orleans.

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