07/01/2007 11:00PM

Always First sometimes second

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CHICAGO - Always First finished second in his two starts so far this season, but he comes to Arlington Park as the horse to beat Wednesday in the Stars and Stripes Handicap.

Always First, based at trainer Thomas Voss's Atlanta Hall Training Center in Monkton, Md., will have just five rivals in the Stars and Stripes, a Grade 3, $200,000 race run over 1 1/2 miles on turf. Fantastic Spain, who would have made seven in the race, stayed home in California, but could show for the Arlington Handicap, trainer Neil Drysdale said.

Midwest race fans may not be familiar with Voss, who typically cleaves to East Coast racing, but many will remember his last high-class 1 1/2-mile horse, the ageless John's Call. Always First, a 6-year-old, has not reached that level yet, but he has shown signs of breaking into the top echelon of long-distance grass horses.

First, Always First must break through with a win. He was beaten a neck by Ascertain in the Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland, and finished a fast-closing, troubled second last time out in the Louisville Handicap at Churchill. Robby Albarado is here to take the mount.

Always First tends to settle and make a big run, but the Stars and Stripes could be complicated by a lack of early pace. Come on Jazz raced on the lead in a one-mile comeback start last time out, but trainer Brian Williamson said Come on Jazz will employ different tactics Wednesday.

"This time we'll take him back and give him something to run at," Williamson said.

That could leave Todd Pletcher-trained and rail-drawn Ramazutti on the lead, provided jockey Rene Douglas wants it. Ramazutti, a neck behind Always First in the Louisville, used to be a confirmed front-runner in races like this, but has learned to settle off the lead when asked.

Swagger Stick was third in the 2005 Stars and Stripes, but didn't race for 20 months after that, and has shown little in three starts after the layoff. Mining for Silver looks overmatched, Stream Cat may not want to go this far, and Major Rhythm, who shocked the 2006 Stars and Stripes at 35-1, seems unlikely to pull off another upset. But Cloudy's Knight should have a say in the outcome. Cloudy's Knight didn't run his race when he was fifth in the Elkhorn, but his close fourth in the Louisville came with noteworthy trouble.

"He didn't have a horrible trip, but he was pretty wide," trainer Frank Kirby said. "He's training excellent right up to this race."