07/14/2003 11:00PM

Ajedrez an upstart at short odds

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CHICAGO - Curt Bourque was riding first call for trainer Wayne Catalano and owner Frank Calabrese at the start of the Arlington meet. But not too many weeks had gone by before Bourque had lost his position with the stable. By then, Bourque had a foothold here, and he has put together a good run even without Catalano and Calabrese. But shortly after the ax fell, Bourque expressed one regret. He wasn't going to get to ride Ajedrez, an Argentine import Catalano was bringing up to his U.S. debut.

Bourque had worked Ajedrez and felt beneath him what was on public display when the colt raced here June 29. In a seven-furlong, first-level allowance race, Ajedrez and jockey Eddie Razo clung to the rail and found plenty of traffic. Razo had to wait, and wait some more, but Ajedrez hung in there with him, staying relaxed. A hole opened at the three-sixteenths pole, and that was it. With a burst of speed most often found in a stakes race, Ajedrez quickened away from his 11 rivals and was ridden out to a 4 1/2-length victory.

Thursday, in Arlington's eighth race, his development since the visually impressive win will be revealed. Ajedrez will have nine opponents in the second-level allowance race at one mile.

Ajedrez has worked just once since his win, a glacial five furlongs in 1:05, but this is standard practice for Catalano. Before questioning his training patterns, look at his 30-percent win rate in 2003.

"He's doing real good," said Catalano, whose barn, by its own lofty standards, has gone through a lean month. "I don't see any kind of [bounce] coming now, not the way he's training. He can gallop a little tough, but he relaxed real nice when Razo breezed him the other day."

Group 1-placed in Argentina, Ajedrez is brimming with upside, but his odds are on the way down. With the uncertainty of hemispheric transition last time, Ajedrez went off at a generous 9-2. This time, he'll probably be odds-on.

Try to beat him with a better price, or look for value in gimmick wagers. Behind Enemy Lines may be the second choice, but he is a deep closer subject to troubled trips. A sluggish break from an inside post compromised Stormy Seas in his last race, and he is a pace threat here at a price. Alotta Numbers was done in by a speed duel in his last start and is capable of a better effort.