12/04/2002 1:00AM

Top breeding states battle in State Challenge

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Which state has the best racing in the country: Kentucky, New York, California, or perhaps none of the big three? There may never be a consensus answer to to that question, but Saturday's Great State Challenge at Sam Houston Race Park should provide evidence of which state has the best statebred program.

Modeled on the Breeders' Cup, the $1.65 million Great State Challenge consists of six races, each worth $275,000, and is restricted to horses bred in states in which the recognized horsemen's association is a dues-paying member of the NTRA. With so much money on the line, horses have been shipped to Sam Houston from 10 states, and some of the runners - Take Charge Lady and Forbidden Apple, for example - are Grade 1 winners.

Besides the appeal of watching such good horses compete, it should be interesting to see how the representatives from different states perform.

To be fair, the Great State Challenge is more accurately a test of the strongest breeding program than the best racing state. Horses are not placed on state "teams" based on where they they usually run, but rather on where they were bred. This gives a dominant breeding state such as Kentucky a tremendous edge.

Kentucky has 11 runners in the Great State Challenge, and many have raced all across the country in open company. New York, by contrast, has just one representative.

Just as intriguing as the state vs. state competitions is the individual stakes races. Most of the Great State races appear evenly matched, with the exception of those that attracted Take Charge Lady and Forbidden Apple.

Although competitive, the races did not attract the large fields that officials anticipated. A total of 49 horses were entered in the six races, an average of less than 8.2 per race, and the Classic attracted only six runners, including an entry.

To some extent, the limited participation mirrors that of the Super Track Racing series, a stakes challenge that Magna attempted in 2001, pitting Gulfstream Park horses versus their Santa Anita counterparts.

The first of the Super Track Racing series, which was planned at Santa Anita in March of last year, was canceled. And the second, offered at Gulfstream, had relatively small out-of-state participation, in part because of logistical challenges and medication differences between the two states.

Hopefully, the Great State Challenge will grow with time and experience. But despite the fewer-than-expected entrants, the races are interesting. Here's a quick look at the fields:

The Great State Juvenile Fillies, a seven-furlong race, is headlined by Midnight Cry, who ran third in the Grade 1 Spinaway earlier in the year. She faces opposition from Souris and Miss Nicolie, among others.

The Juvenile follows, and like the Juvenile Fillies, it will be run at seven furlongs. Supah Blitz and Hear No Evil, two Florida invaders, take on the powerful Kentucky duo of Posse and Private Gold.

The Sprint lost a key horse earlier in the week when Disturbingthepeace was withdrawn from consideration, but it remains one of the best races on the card. Day Trader, the winner of the Kentucky Cup Sprint who ran 10th in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, takes on Royal Lad, My Cousin Matt, and Deer Run.

Take Charge Lady and Forbidden Apple will be prohibitive favorites in the next two races, the Distaff and the Turf. Forbidden Apple appears a standout, following a fourth in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and Take Charge Lady should be able to handle Mystic Lady and four other rivals, even on short rest.

The Classic wraps up the card, and appears the race most affected by late defections. Easyfromthegitgo, who won the Iowa Derby in July, may be vulnerable at 1 1/8 miles, a distance that appears beyond his best. Continental Red, the runner-up in the California Cup Classic, should be a force with Pat Valenzuela in the saddle.