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FOR HANDICAPPERS who enjoy their work, there's nothing like Sunday night's Hopeful Pace.

Buffalo Raceway's $190,000 mile for 2-year-olds offers horseplayers an opportunity seldom found in other local stakes races.

All the Hopeful colts raced -- and finished first or second -- in elimination heats last week. They also had a great incentive to win since second place did not guarantee a spot in the final.

They all are a known quantity. There are no mysterious out-of-town shippers. No horses trying to negotiate the tight turns of a half-mile oval for the first time. Everything to know about the nine-horse field is available.

At least that's what the Happy Handicapper told himself last week as he pored over the past performances and video tapes in search of the winner. He also told himself the same thing last year, when he came up with a pick which finished sixth.

But this is a brand new year and it's time to try again. That's why they call it the Hopeful, right?

Let's take a look at the contenders:

Fastest qualifier: Cambest led all the way to win the fastest elimination by a nose over Squire Squirt in 1:59 3/5 . The clocking tied Cambest's lifetime mark, set June 3 at The Meadows near Pittsburgh. His 58 4/5 first half also was the fastest in the five prelims.

Next fastest qualifier was Squire Squirt, clocked in identical time. Squire Squirt gained almost two lengths in a 30 2/5 final quarter and just missed by a nose. They were the only ones to better two minutes on the wet track that was classed as "good." Three other races went in 2:00 flat and one was clocked in 2:00 1/5 .

Fastest final quarter: He's Discreet electrified last Sunday's crowd with a four-wide rush that came just a head short of catching Black Gold Road, who won in 2:00. He's Discreet's last quarter was run in 28 seconds.

The quickest last quarter for a winner was posted by Interpretor, who won his division by 1 1/2 lengths in 2:00. He left from Post Nine, made a three-wide move to take the lead at the half and then paced the last quarter in 28 2/5 .

Fastest lifetime mile: Three Wizzards owns the fastest lifetime mark of the Hopeful participants with a 1:58 1/5 mile posted in a 6-length win at Windsor Raceway. Next is Black Gold Road, who took his 1:58 3/5 mark at Windsor, too.

Most Likely to Break: If there's a race track in hell, it probably has a first turn like Buffalo Raceway's.

Heavily favored Beach Towel did the dance on the sharp first turn in last year's Hopeful to become another of about a jillion horses who have gone down the tubes before their time. It can happen to anyone, but this year's most likely candidate appears to be Black Gold Road, who has broken stride at the start twice in his last six races. He was a little rough-gaited in the warm-up and at the start last Sunday, but still won his heat in 2:00 with a last quarter in 29 1/5 . Black Gold Road has the No. One post and will be driven Sunday by Chris Boring, who has never driven him before.

Another candidate might be Squire Squirt, who has William Gale in the bike for the first time. Gale, a leader on the Greenwood-Mohawk circuit, had terrible first-turn luck at the Raceway last month as two of his New York Sire Stakes horses broke there.

Who beat who: Not many clues here, since most of the entrants have had limited experience. If you look carefully, you'll notice that Interpretor beat a horse called Fabulious by a neck at Hazel Park and Fabulious later beat Squire Squirt by a neck.

Richest horses: Squire Squirt tops the bankrolls with $22,317. Most of the money came from a win in the $26,385 W.R. Reynolds Stakes (a former Buffalo Raceway event) at Toledo's Raceway Park and a second in a $25,000 stakes at Windsor. Next comes the Ackerman stable entry of Interpretor, who has won $18,942, and Black Gold Road, with $18,025.

Undefeateds: Something has to give. Interpretor is 5-for-5. Cambest is 4-for-4. WRH is 2-for-2.

Best Breeding: This is tough to say. The nine horses represent eight sires.

On The Road Again, sire of Black Gold Road and Road to Gold, is the hottest young stud in the business. His Road Machine earned $369,164 and was Canada's champion 2-year-old pacing colt last year and finished third in the $1 million North America Cup at Greenwood last Saturday. Direct Scooter, sire of WRH, is the father of Matt's Scooter, 1989 Horse of the Year.

Best Drivers: John Campbell (WRH) is the all-time leading money winner. Ben Webster (Road To Gold) is No. 9 on the money list. Gale started the year No. 11 on the dash-winners list and No. 32 in overall.

Sentimental Favorite: He's Discreet. Sired by Niatross, stabled at the Raceway, part-owned by the widow of the late Robbie Rankin, driven by Patsy C. Rapone, and trained by Rankin's former assistant, Fred White Jr., the late-closer is sure to be the rooting favorite of the Hamburg regulars.

Best Post Positions: Black Gold Road drew the rail, the post from which Farley Almahurst won last year. He is followed by Road To Gold, No. 9, who starts from the second tier. Cambest has Post Two. And you should have heard the squeals of delight in the He's Discreet camp when he drew Post Three.

Probable Odds: The coupled entry of Interpretor and Black Gold Road is the morning line favorite at 3-1. They're followed by Cambest (7-2), WRH (4-1), He's Discreet (5-1), Road To Gold (6-1), Squire Squirt (8-1), Three Wizzards (10-1) and Fission (12-1).

The Forecast: Cambest gets the jump out of the gate, but loses a photo to WRH. Interpretor nips He's Discreet for show.

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