05/21/2001 12:00AM

A'fire finally showing some of that old spark


STICKNEY, Ill. - If you were privy to Thoroughbred gossip a couple of years ago, you might recall the name A'fire. Michael Tabor owned the horse, Pat Byrne trained him. The gossip said he could run.

But like many word-of-mouth talents, A'fire never blossomed. Without ever showing his rumored ability, A'fire was sold and shipped out of the major leagues. He wound up with trainer Bob Irwin on the Chicago circuit, and last year, gradually, A'fire began improving. He won an entry-level allowance race here at Hawthorne in October, his second-level allowance condition on New Year's Day, and a third-level allowance race in his first start at Hawthorne this spring.

On Tuesday, A'fire - no superstar but a useful horse now at age 4 - will try to knock out yet another win in Hawthorne's featured fifth race, an optional claiming, fourth-level allowance to be contested at 1 1/16 miles. Three turf races help support Tuesday's nine-race program, a very good card by midweek standards.

A'fire last raced on April 17, missing by a nose in a Sportsman's Park allowance. He has been lightly freshened since that race, posting three modest workouts at Hawthorne during the month of May. All signs point to a sharp performance Tuesday.

There is little speed in the race, and A'fire should race close to a tepid pace in this short field of six, with Castlewood, a sprinter much of his career, the likely pacesetter. Castlewood won two straight at Sportsman's and is a threat to lead all the way if he gets his pace.

Beboppin Baby will be adversely affected by a slow pace, while Mr. High Tops and Power of Humor are coming off poor races.

The fifth is the best of the three turf races, with Notion trying to continue owner-trainer Louie Roussel's hot streak in Chicago. Late in the Fair Grounds meet, Roussel privately bought two horses trained by Frank Brothers, Intern and Notion, and won with both of them. Intern has already won at this meet, and Notion also is well spotted in this second-level allowance.

Chief's Hogan, who showed turf ability as a 3-year-old, enters the race with improving form and has a fondness for the Hawthorne course.