07/14/2004 11:00PM

Woodington due to win


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Trainer Jamie Woodington hopes the second half of the Monmouth Park season is more productive for her barn than the first half.

"It's been a slow summer," said Woodington. "Some horses were just not ready, and we'd hoped they would be better than what they are."

Woodington, 0 for 23 through Thursday, hopes to get rolling Saturday with American Freedom in the second division of the $60,000 Elkwood Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

American Freedom, a 6-year-old gray New Jersey-bred, is a solid grass runner who will be making his 31st career start. He ran third behind Burning Roma on opening day in the Grade 3 Red Bank Handicap and ran sixth as the pacesetter in the Battlefield Stakes on June 12.

"He's doing well," said Woodington. "He runs his race every time you lead him over. He's had a little break. He'll run well."

American Freedom ran third in last year's Elkwood, beaten only one length.

"He just missed," said Woodington. "He ran second and third in a lot of stakes here. He ran very consistently."

The stakes, split for the first time, will be run as the fifth and eighth races.

Elkwood runners in the first division include Gulch Approval, an allowance winner at Belmont Park trained by Nick Zito; Royal Affirmed, a front-running winner in a $75,000 claimer at Belmont; and Stormy Ray, winner of two in a row.

Getting lucky with Chuckie

Bettors who backed Chuckie Lopez on Wednesday were rewarded with a three-win performance.

It also marked the second straight card in which Lopez rode a winner for leading owner Michael Gill.

The relationship could benefit both parties. Gill and Stewart Elliott recently ended their agreement whereby Elliott rode first call for Gill.

The Gill barn has used a mix of riders in recent days but has clicked only with Lopez.

"I'm using everybody right now," said Gammy Vazquez, who trains Gill's Monmouth division. "I'm using the rider that best fits a horse's running style. Chuckie has been the one that fit our last couple of winners. We are trying to get everybody a shot."

As success breeds even more success, Lopez and Gill could be a strong combination.

"I met Gammy a couple of years ago and really hit it off," said Lopez. "I wasn't even riding for him. This year, when the opportunity presented itself, he didn't hesitate to name me. When you have the right chemistry, it makes for a good work environment."

Lopez won two more races Thursday to move ahead of Jose Velez Jr. into sole possession of fourth place in the standings with 24 wins.

With so much depth in the jockey colony, there are fewer wins to go around.

"I think this year, we have better-caliber riders," said Lopez. "They are giving us a whole lot more money to do it. The pieces of the pie, no matter how you slice it, have more filling."

Lopez was referring to the supplement from the Atlantic City casinos that has lifted Monmouth purses to record levels.

"I figure anywhere within the top five is good," said Lopez, who finished in the top three every season from 1997 through 2002, winning the title in 1998. He was fourth last year.