07/14/2003 11:00PM

Veteran of Plate, but still a maiden

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Dance Engagement, fifth in the $1 million Queen's Plate, will take a sharp drop in class in Thursday's first race at Woodbine, a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight race.

Trainer John Ross nominated Dance Engagement to several stakes in the spring, but the horse debuted in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race May 18. Sent off at 11-1, he encountered traffic on the turn and at the sixteenth pole before closing for fourth.

With the Queen's Plate in mind, Ross ran Dance Engagement back June 8 in the nine-furlong Victoria Park Stakes and came away elated when the colt rallied wide to finish second, a neck back of Pants N Kisses.

"He's a fast-improving horse," Ross said of Dance Engagement before the June 22 Plate. "I was really proud of the way he ran in the Victoria Park."

Pointing out a jump in Beyer Speed Figures from 60 to 82, Ross added, "He was slow to come around, but then he came around quickly for me in a short period of time."

In the 1 1/4-mile Plate, Dance Engagement stalked the pace from a four-wide position until he began to weaken on the far turn. He ended up 15 1/2 lengths back of Wando - who won by nine lengths - and was 6 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up, Mobil, who captured the Grade 2 Toronto Cup Handicap in his next appearance.

Jim McAleney will ride Dance Engagement, who figures to assume a forward position near a tepid pace after breaking from the inside post.

Rounding out the first-race lineup are Cherokee Commander, Tiger Shrimp, Serve it Up, and Awesome Rush.

Awesome Rush, owned by Stronach Stable, began his career last winter at Santa Anita, where he finished third and fourth in a pair of maiden special weight sprints for trainer Bobby Frankel. He was shipped here to Danny Vella's barn after running fourth in a May 17 maiden dash at Belmont.

In his local debut, Awesome Rush went long for the first time and raced three wide in a stalking position over an inside-biased track, finishing second.

The blinkers are going back on Awesome Rush, who is a three-quarter brother to graded-stakes-placed runners Deputy Diamond and Waddaan.

Tiger Shrimp debuted June 15 and finished a remarkable fourth behind Awesome Rush. Tiger Shrimp was rank in the early stages, then tried to lug in through the stretch while in the midst of a five-wide rally. Trainer Reade Baker will try blinkers on him Thursday.