06/01/2005 11:00PM

For $40K, Awad draws tough crowd

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The Awad Stakes was supposed to be a lead-in to the Mid-America Triple, Arlington's series of three grass races for 3-year-olds that starts with the July 2 Arlington Classic and ends with the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes. The way the Awad came together, it might as well be part of the series itself.

"I think it's a pretty tough race for $40,000, is what I think," said trainer Hugh Robertson.

Robertson figured the Awad would present an opportune moment to launch the turf career of the improving Three Hour Nap. He didn't figure to jump in so deep right away.

In all, 11 were entered in the one-mile Awad, and besides Three Hour Nap, the race includes stakes winners Exceptional Ride, Straight Line, Ready Ruler, and Raving Rocket.

, blowout winner of the Grade 3 Iroquois last fall at Churchill Downs, was cross-entered in race 7, a third-level allowance, and may opt for that spot if the Awad remains on grass. Straight Line and Win Me Over, both trained by Brian Williamson, are coupled in the Awad.

, in from Kentucky for trainer Kenny McPeek, should be favored. McPeek also thinks he should win. Exceptional Ride has won 2 of his 5 grass starts, including a $70,000 stakes last fall at Churchill, and when he finished sixth - beaten a little more than two lengths - in the Crown Royal American Turf on May 6 at Churchill, Exceptional Ride hadn't raced in four months.

"His last race was a good race," McPeek said. "He's a real hard-trying horse. He was out of conditions, so we had to jump right into a stake. He ran pretty well, and he should be ready to improve this time. I kind of expect him to win up there."

On paper, the Awad baffles. First is the Straight Line conundrum. His lone start this season was terrible, but Straight Line had a serious hock infection and has been smoking recent morning works at Arlington. He has the pedigree to be effective on grass, if his connections take a shot in the race. Add , two more fleet dirt sprinters, into the mix, and the scene gets even murkier.

If even half the pace entered in the Awad shows up, fast fractions are forecast. Sitting behind the leading group should be Robertson's horse, Three Hour Nap, who might not be in too tough after all. Three Hour Nap won the Arlington-Washington Futurity at one mile on dirt here last fall, and his two starts this season - the first dismal, the more recent much better - both came at six furlongs.

"He's not a top-quality sprinter," Robertson said. "Hopefully the extra ground will bring him back to himself. He's by Afternoon Deelites, and the other ones I've had have been better on grass."