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PRINCE OF WALES STAGE SET FOR CRYPTOCLOSER

Does Cryptocloser, the favorite in Sunday's Prince of Wales Stakes, have a guardian angel or what?

It sure seemed somebody up there was watching over the big bay gelding when they drew the seven post positions Thursday for the Fort Erie Race Track's biggest race of the year.

First of all, the gods of chance stuck Sovereign Storm, Cryptocloser's main rival in the 62nd renewal of the second jewel of Canada's Triple Crown, on the outside.

Then they put C.C. On Ice, the main speed in Canada's version of the Preakness, on the inside.

And finally, the luck of the draw gave Cryptoclos er the No. 3 spot, right outside of Annihilate, anoth er front-running type.

Holy Peteski! Even the Happy Handicapper can figure this one out. The only question is who's going to run third.

Let's take a look into the future by running down the field (with jockeys and morning line odds).

C.C. On Ice (Constant Montpellier, 9-2): "He wasn't himself on (Queen's) Plate Day," trainer Dan ny Vella said after this one finished 13th by 24 3/4 lengths in the first jewel. The reason? One of the oldest in the trainer's book of excuses: "We scoped the horse and found a large amount of mucous."

Stuffy nose or not, this gelding is not going to last 9 1/2 furlongs (that's 1 3/1 6th miles) carrying 126 pounds unless he grows wings. Believe it.

Take that all back, of course, if you happen to see his owner, Frank Stronach, in the crowd. The hottest millionaire in racing (he won the Queen's Plate with Awesome Again and Belmont Stakes with Touch Gold) tends to show up when he has a good shot.

Annihilate (Sandy Hawley, 6-1): "When we brought him back (after finishing eighth in the Plate, by 14 1/2 ), we scoped him and he was filled with mucous."

No, that's not a typographical error. That's what trainer Reade Baker told the H.H. Monday morning at Woodbine. Does any trainer ever check a horse for mucous before a big race?

Baker, who also had an allowance race in mind for this colt today at Woodbine, decided to ship to Fort Erie to take advantage of the small field where even fifth-place is worth $5,883.< "Whether he's good enough to run (in this company), I don't know," Baker said, pointing out that "only two horses that finished in front of him in the Plate are running."

"He recovered well and worked three quarters in 1:14 flat on the training track the other day with Hawley. Hawley really thinks he has a chance," Baker added. "If the field's small enough, less than eight, I'm interested." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Cryptocloser (Willie Martinez, 7-5): While the mucous twins are dueling away on the front end, the favorite can get the perfect trip, stalking the speed while waiting to make his move.

Martinez, the Kentucky sensation who got his start at Finger Lakes, gave this horse a perfect Plate rail- skimming trip until running into traffic trouble twice on the last turn. Still, he came on late to be second by 3 1/2 lengths.

Trainer Mark Frostad doesn't claim the problems cost the victory, but said, "I know he got stopped bad enough so that he lost five or six lengths. ... I was surprised he got back up for second, quite frankly."

Cryptocloser, the 6-5 Plate favorite, was ninth in the early running of that race. But Frostad said "He's got to be a little closer to the pace," at speed-favoring Fort Erie.

To ensure this, Frostad has drilled some big speed into Cryptocloser. Last Sunday, in what Frostad called "a super work," he breezed 5 furlongs in a blistering 58 4/5 and then galloped out in 1:12 4/5 . This one is ready.

Zacharov (Emile Ramsammy, 6-1): Knob Hill Stable (owner-breeder Steve Stavro, trainer Phil Eng land) seeks a repeat of Benburb's upset of Alydeed in the 1992 Prince of Wales. But England admits, he's "taking a shot" with a horse who's had only one win from four starts and has never faced stakes company.

"He's reasonably speedy going long ... It's going to be a small field, so we're going to go in with a shot," England said.

Rabbit In A Hat (Steve Bahen, 8-1): Trainer Barbara Minshall, who won the last two Prince of Wales with Kiridashi and Stephanotis, hopes they haven't run out of brown and sand paint to put on the jockey statue at the front gate. It would be quite a hat trick, considering that this colt ran ninth in the Plate by 15 1/2 .

"He's decent and with the kind of horses that are in there ... I think he's worth a shot," she said.

Bowmore (Na Somsanith, 15-1): After finishing more than 35 lengths back in the Plate, he prepped for the Prince by running fourth in an allowance race on the turf.

Sovereign Storm (Steve Hamilton, 7-2): This late-runner from Baltimore finished a nose behind Cryptocloser in the Plate after a pretty clean trip. "I don't think he can really change the way he runs a whole lot. He's going to come running at the end," Hamilton said after flying up from Maryland to ride him in Wednesday's workout at Fort Erie. (He went a half mile in 47 4/5 seconds but the official clockers only caught his last quarter).

Hamilton said "hopefully, it just sets up with a little speed in front of us and he'll be running at them."

But he won't quite get there, the H.H. predicts. He forecasts Cryptocloser over Sovereign Storm in a photo, with Rabbit In A Hat third.

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