12/05/2002 12:00AM

Tough pick: Stakes winners all

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HOUSTON - Each of the 10 colts and geldings in the $275,000 Great State Challenge Juvenile at Sam Houston Race Park on Saturday has won at least one stakes, which makes the seven-furlong race one of the most bettable and interesting offerings on a program made up of nothing but stakes.

"It's a very competitive race," said Steve Asmussen, who will send out Grade 3 Kentucky Breeders' Cup winner Posse. "There's a lot of quality and depth to the field."

Favoritism could go to either the California-bred Only the Best, who has won open-company stakes in his last two starts, or the Kentucky-bred Private Gold, who earlier this year finished second in the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile to Vindication, eventual winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Others of note in the field include Supah Blitz and Hear No Evil, one-two last out in a statebred stakes in Florida; Crackup, winner of the $125,000 Cal Cup Juvenile in his last start; and Cherokee's Boy, a 21 3/4-length winner against statebreds two starts ago in Maryland.

Private Gold comes into the Great State following a troubled third-place finish in the $100,000 Hoosier Juvenile, run over six furlongs Nov. 23. Earlier this year, he won the $100,000 Ellis Park Juvenile at the seven-furlong distance he travels Saturday.

Patrick Byrne, who trains Private Gold, said that seven furlongs to a mile "ideally could be his best distance."

Private Gold's only blemish on form came at Keeneland in the Grade 2 Lane's End Breeders' Stakes on Oct. 5 when he finished sixth to Sky Mesa. Before the start of the race, he kicked the starting gate.

"Maybe I had him too sharp," said Byrne. "He lost his focus from that point on. He just didn't run."

Byrne gave Private Gold a generous amount of time between races after that and brought him back for the Hoosier Juvenile. Corey Nakatani will ride the colt, who is a half-brother to Stem the Tide, a Grade 3 winner of 13 races and $405,092.

Only the Best, who covered six furlongs in a fast 1:09 in his two recent stakes wins, is looking for his first win beyond six furlongs in the Juvenile. Speed is his weapon, and he figures to be prominent throughout under Patrick Valenzuela.

Another colt with natural speed is Posse, who will break from the rail under Donnie Meche. Posse won his maiden by 13 1/2 lengths in April and has trained well for the Juvenile.