KENYAN Julius Kimtai will be chasing a first prize of £1,000 as he tries to complete a hat-trick of victories in tonight's biggest-ever Blaydon Race.

Kimtai, who set a course record of 26 mins 35 secs for the 5.7-mile event last year, will be at the front of a 3,500-strong field when the starting pistol is fired outside Balmbra's Music Hall in the centre of Newcastle at 6pm.

Entries for the 21st running of the race, which has been immortalised in the Geordie folk song, closed weeks ago and hundreds of applications have had to be turned down by organiser Dr Jim Dewar.

Kimtai, who has won both the Northern Echo-supported Auckland Castle 10Ks, was in his best form 12 months ago when he was a comfortable winner of the Tyneside event.

But this time he faces opposition from fellow Kenyans Erik Kiplagat, winner of the Tour of Tameside last year, and Hilary Lelei.

Kimtai beat Lelei in the Fila Stevenage 5K on May 30, but the African went on to win the Mixuno Corby five-miler three days later, when he beat Kiplagat by an emphatic 26 secconds.

While the three Kenyans are expected to be in the thick of the action along the Scotswood Road, former winner Mark Hudspith, of Morpeth Harriers, will be out to confirm his standing as the region's top road runner.

The women's race has been dominated in the last three years by Ethiopian Birhan Dagne, who is going her fourth successive victory.

Dagne, who has settled in this country and now competes for Essex Ladies, holds the women's record of 31 mins 4 secs.

Sunderland Harrier Derek Mullen will not be defending the over-40 title he won last year, leaving the way clear for Elswick Harrier Ieuan Ellis, second last year and the first veteran home in this year's Flora London Marathon.

l The region's top young athletes will be trying to qualify for the English Schools Championships in Exeter next month when they compete in their county championships this afternoon.

The venues are: Durham (Monkton Stadium, Jarrow), Northumberland (Gateshead International Stadium) and Cleveland (Clairville, Middlesbrough).

l Morpeth Harrier Ian Hudspith, the former AAA half marathon champion, will take part in tonight's Norwich Union World 10,000m trial and AAA Championship at Watford.

l Dwain Chambers ran the fastest 100 metres by a European this year to blow away the opposition in last night's Grand Prix Two meeting in Seville's Estadio Olympic.

On the same track where he won a world championship bronze medal, Chambers recorded 10.01 seconds to leave his rivals trailing.

There was a blow for fellow Brit Jason Gardener however, who pulled up when leading at the halfway point. But Chambers was left to look back on a performance that left top Nigerian Deji Aliu and American Brian Lewis for dead.

He admitted that he would have liked to have run under the ten-second barrier, saying: ''It would have been nice to do that particularly as I ran my 9.97secs for third place in the worlds here two years ago."