05/04/2012 1:51PM

Arlington: Not easy finding winner in short field for turf feature

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A return to business as usual on Sunday at Arlington Park qualifies in this case as a raging success.

Following two days of absurdly short fields, the product of a pre-meet contract dispute between Arlington and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association that led to an informal boycott of the entry box, 99 horses were entered for Sunday’s 10-race card. Purses, cut 20 percent the first two days due to the fight, are back to their expected levels. Maidens run for a very solid $40,000 pot, while third-level allowance horses racing in featured race 6 compete for $44,000.

The featured sixth, also open to $80,000 claimers, is a one-mile grass race that drew a compact but fairly appealing field of six, and despite the paucity of runners, an honest pace seems likely. Exchanging Kisses, who has run some big races the last couple years on the Arlington turf, is strictly a need-the-lead type, while Saint Leon is fast enough to make the pace in short sprint races. Neither is taking back Sunday, but if either scratches, bettor beware: The other front-runner is going to dictate terms on the front end.

If both start, three others horses – Nikki’s Sandcastle, Gleaming Hope, and Charging Home – all seem to have a reasonable chance. Nikki’s Sandcastle, the mild choice, has won both his previous starts over the Arlington course, and appears to be coming into Sunday’s start in good form. Third and fourth in a pair of third-level turf allowance races at Gulfstream – one of them won by Grade 1 Makers 46 Mile hero Data Link – Nikki’s Sandcastle moved into $25,000 starter-allowance competition, took two close losses with tough trips, then won a grass race at that class level on March 23, his most recent race. Nikki’s Sandcastle, trained by Dave Kassen, has tactical speed and possesses a versatile running style that should serve him well in this spot.

The 5-year-old Gleam of Hope won at this class level last summer at Arlington and gets into Sunday’s race because his connections have entered him for the $80,000 claiming option. Gleam of Hope has been grinding his way to decent finishes while failing to win a series of dirt stakes, and might appreciate a return to turf, where he’s a two-time winner.

Charging Home finished 10th of 11 at Keeneland in his most recent race, but that wasn’t a representative performance, with Charging Home, best as a stalker, somehow ending up on the early lead. A three-time Arlington grass winner, Charging Home drew the rail and could sit a good, ground-saving trip a few lengths behind the pacesetters.