01/10/2002 12:00AM

Tugger stretching out in overflow Affectionately


JAMAICA, N.Y. - The Affectionately Handicap was so popular with horsemen that when entry time for the Grade 3 arrived on Thursday morning the entry box overfilled.

Thirteen fillies and mares entered Saturday's $100,000-added Affectionately at Aqueduct, with starting status granted to the top 12 highweights. Miss Splash and Tsuyo were both assigned 109 pounds, but Miss Splash won the tiebreaker with more money won, so Tsuyo landed on the also-eligible list.

Handicappers will have a difficult time settling upon a favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Affectionately, where only nine pounds separate the 118-pound highweight, Tugger, from Miss Splash.

Tugger, who could be a lukewarm favorite, enters unknown territory. Trained by Todd Pletcher, 5-year-old Tugger is a graded winner at a mile but lost her only start around two turns on the dirt when she was 3.

Pletcher's assistant, John Hassett, was reluctant to make any predictions on how Tugger will fare.

"It's difficult to tell," Hassett said, noting that "she gallops out well" in her workouts, "but the distance is a question."

Hassett said one thing should be counted on. "She won't be coming from out of it. She'll be right up there around the lead."

Jose Velez Jr., who rode Tugger to a gutsy second-place finish in the Top Flight in her last start, has the mount. Tugger drew favorably in post 1.

Like Tugger, A.O.L Hayes has speed, and she used that early foot to her advantage by wiring the Prismatical field at The Meadowlands last fall. In her next start, A.O.L. Hayes chased pacesetter Tugger in the Top Flight and finished fifth after getting squeezed at the top of the stretch.

Seth Gregory, trainer Mark Hennig's assistant, said the time between the Nov. 23 Top Flight and the Affectionately has served A.O.L Hayes well.

"She's good and fresh," Gregory said, noting that the Top Flight "was a very good effort. She had some trouble at the head of the lane and got shut off, but came running again."

Strolling Belle, second in the 2001 Affectionately, will race with blinkers for the first time in the hope that the equipment hones her focus.

Top efforts from either Zonk or People's Princess could land them in the winner's circle, especially if the speed falls apart.

Search Party, a monster over Aqueduct's main track, finished third in her one inner track start.

A.P. Andie stole away to an easy lead setting pedestrian fractions in a third-level allowance on Dec. 12, but it is unlikely she will get that pace scenario in the Affectionately.