01/06/2004 12:00AM

Tough task for First Blush


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It has been slightly more than a year since First Blush upset the Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream Park. During that time, First Blush has been solid if unspectacular when earning paycheck after paycheck while more than earning his keep for owners Irv and Marjorie Cowan.

But while consistency is almost always a virtue, it doesn't necessarily impress horseplayers, who are far more concerned with cashing tickets on winners. And while First Blush once again seems likely to earn a piece of the purse in the Thursday feature at Gulfstream, a three-other-than allowance with a $75,000 claiming option, there are at least a few others who appear capable of keeping him stuck at that condition.

At least two 4-year-olds rank as serious challengers to First Blush in the six-furlong race worth $38,000: Alke, who went 2 for 2 in New York after coming under the care of trainer Todd Pletcher, and I'm the Tiger, a Canadian invader trained by Danny Vella.

Alke, who got his name when owners Alan Braun and Ken English decided to combine the first two letters of their first names, formerly was based in the Midwest with Bob Holthus. After getting more than six months off, Alke returned to the races in October at Belmont Park, where he was sharp in winning an entry-level allowance in his first start for Pletcher. Seven weeks later, Alke followed that with a victory in an allowance at Aqueduct, and with John Velazquez scheduled to ride again, he probably will be favored in a field of nine.

I'm the Tiger, owned by Stronach Stable, has been training in recent weeks at Palm Meadows since migrating south from Woodbine, where he won two allowance races in five starts last year. Mark Guidry will ride I'm the Tiger, a gelding who has shown excellent tactical ability when finishing in the money in all six career starts.

Other possibilities in a tough field include Hastings Rocks, winner of a second-level allowance at Calder when favored in his last start, and Omega Code, an intriguing Southern California castoff now being trained by Dale Romans.

The eighth-race feature is one of two allowances on the program. The other is the fourth race, a $34,000, entry-level turf route that drew an overflow field of fillies and mares. Pletcher and Velazquez also could be favored in that one with Krasnaya.