07/03/2007 11:00PM

Always First just gets there

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The Stars and Stripes Handicap is run on Arlington Park's turf course at 1 1/2 miles, but the race came down to a bob of the head. And the way things have gone this year for Robby Albarado, you knew which horse had gotten his head down. Albarado and Always First prevailed by inches over Ramsey Zimmerman and Cloudy's Knight, who took a tough loss in a game effort.

Albarado had a great Triple Crown run on Curlin, and last month he won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. Saturday, he made a conscious effort to keep Always First close enough to the early pace to give his mount a chance to win. Always First, trained by Tom Voss, had turned in good stretch runs only to finish second in a pair of Kentucky turf stakes this spring.

"I wanted to keep him a little closer, leave him a little less to do than I have been," Albarado said.

It would have been difficult for Always First to fall too far off the Stars and Stripes pace, since there was none. With no one interested in making the front, Zimmerman let Cloudy's Knight gallop up to set dawdling fractions on a slow turf course. The half-mile went in 52.05 seconds, six furlongs in just less than 1:18, but Always First still got the jump on Cloudy's Knight by making a quick move at the top of the stretch. Albarado opened up a half-length at the eighth pole, but Cloudy's Knight quickly regained momentum - another couple of jumps and he might have been back in front, but it was Always First by a nose at the finish.

Second choice Stream Cat closed well to finish third, well clear of Come on Jazz. Six-year-old Always First, winning his second graded stakes, was timed in 2:31.74 and paid $5.40. Voss said Always First was a possible starter in the Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga.