05/17/2004 11:00PM

Ajedrez might be ready to wake up


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Even when Ajedrez was beating everything they threw at him last summer at Arlington Park, his trainer at the time, Wayne Catalano, tended to dampen expectations. When Ajedrez left town to try the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont in late September, there was no bluster to Catalano's bearing, the way there is when he feels, deep down, a horse is going to go out and do something good. In the Vosburgh, Ajedrez barely got out of a gallop, finishing ninth, and it is almost as though he has yet to fully recover from the trip.

Ajedrez was third in a Gulfstream Park allowance in February, his last start before Pat Cuccurullo took over for Catalano as owner Frank Calabrese's private trainer. For Cuccurullo, Ajedrez raced twice at Hawthorne, finishing fourth both times. It is getting to be now or never for Ajedrez, an Argentine import who won his first three starts in this country. But in Arlington's featured eighth race Thursday, Ajedrez returns to the track he likes best and stretches out to seven furlongs, a distance that fits the horse better than the shorter races he has contested this year.

In fact, Cuccurullo said before Ajedrez's most recent start that his horse would have trouble winning at six furlongs. At seven-eighths, Ajedrez has won 2 of 4 with one second-place finish; at Arlington, he is 3 for 3. This looks like a wake-up call.

Ajedrez also holds a class edge over many of his seven opponents Thursday, because he has been running in fourth-level allowance races, and this is a third-level allowance with a $62,500 claiming option that allows Ajedrez into the field.

Other horses entered to be claimed are Stratematic and Big Numbers. Stratematic is a place specialist, with 11 seconds from 30 starts. Big Numbers prefers the show hole; in 49 starts, he has filled it 15 times.

Iceplosion hasn't raced since July, but he can knock off Ajedrez, the likely favorite. Iceplosion had a nice - if abbreviated - 3-year-old campaign last year, winning three of seven starts, including an Arlington allowance race.

Horses from the barn of trainer Charlie Livesay overcome long layoffs, and Iceplosion has a consistent work pattern dating to late March.

Smooth as Silver also can contend for the top spot. He narrowly won a second-level Churchill allowance in his last start, but has progressive form for trainer Tom Amoss, who has two wins from four starters after three days of Arlington racing.

Next race is key for Summer Mis

That was not the real Summer Mis that beat one horse Saturday in an overnight stakes race here. Summer Mis is a better horse than that. But at age 5, and with the miles beginning to mount, Summer Mis is not getting any fresher.

Tony Mitchell, who trains Summer Mis for owner Richard Otto, was surprised at how bright his mare was after Saturday's race, in which she faded from a pace-pressing position to finish sixth of seven.

"In the next few days we'll be waiting to see if anything pops up we haven't found," Mitchell said. "What's been at the back of my mind is the weight she's been carrying around."

In Illinois-bred handicaps, Summer Mis has carried as much as 128 pounds, and even in Saturday's open race, she toted 126 under allowance conditions.

Illinois horse of the year in 2003, Summer Mis made a splash at Arlington three years ago. Mitchell has long said that she is not the easiest filly to keep solid. And Summer Mis is scheduled to be bred next season regardless of what she does the rest of this year.

"Is it time to say enough is enough? We're not at that point yet," Mitchell said. "But the next race will be telltale."

What the next race will be has yet to be determined. If Summer Mis comes back in the Grade 3 Chicago Breeders' Cup here June 19, she's likely to run into Smoke Chaser and Tina Bull, the one-two finishers Saturday. Another option is the $75,000 Isaac Murphy, an Illinois-bred race June 26.

Stable follows Cilio's blueprint

The trainer Gene Cilio died last fall, but his racing stable is maintaining Cilio's perennial rhythms. Arlington was the meet Cilio pointed for, and little has changed this season. Cilio's proteges - Greg Geier, currently the head trainer, and Andy Hanson, another longtime assistant - won with three of five starters during opening week, one each on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The streak is a far cry from last winter, when the status of the entire operation was unsettled and Geier was struggling to make things happen at the Fair Grounds meet.

"We couldn't get horses in, couldn't win a race," Geier said. "Everything's started to click right now."