05/21/2003 11:00PM

Attico on upswing for stakes

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CHICAGO - In late December at Fair Grounds, a downcast Mike Stidham watched Attico return to be unsaddled after a dismal 10th-place finish in the Pago Hop Handicap. Attico had won two straight races and trained with gusto leading into the Pago Hop. Rarely had a bad showing so perplexed Stidham.

Five months later, Attico's improving form begs a more pleasant question - can she win in a full field of good grass horses in the Reluctant Guest Handicap at Arlington?

Attico, who looked like a comer at this meet last season, started to turn around when she left Fair Grounds in January. She lost races at Houston and Lone Star, but there were reasonable explanations, legitimate excuses. Stidham felt he had Attico back on track, and she proved him right with a half-length win May 3 at Hawthorne in the Nicole Stakes, like the Reluctant Guest an overnight turf race for fillies and mares.

"The only thing I can think of the Fair Grounds race was that I had several horses that weren't trying on that turf course, for whatever reason," Stidham said.

To beat the best horses she has ever faced, Attico, who is owned by Wertheimer Farm, must improve off the Nicole. At age 4, Attico has plenty of upside, and the Arlington course may be her favorite.

"She's going to put in that little spurt when it's time to go," Stidham said.

Rene Douglas, Arlington's leading turf rider, deserts Attico for Voodoo Lady, who ships in from Kentucky for trainer Elliott Walden. Voodoo Lady, a winner of three of five grass races, clearly ranks among the first flight of contenders, a group that also includes Salty Farma, Ellie's Rose and, perhaps, Kabylia.

Three weeks ago Salty Farma finished eighth in the Grade 3 Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill, but the competition Saturday is easier. Salty Farma's "A" race makes her the horse to beat, but she's already had a busy season, and didn't run especially well here last meet.

Ellie's Rose hasn't raced since November, and by then she'd gone off form after a strong campaign. Several solid workouts in the last month should have Ellie's Rose ready for her comeback.

"Last year she won her first out and it surprised me to no end," said trainer Michelle Boyce. "She doesn't work that fast, and I figured she'd need a race. Hopefully she does the same thing this year, but I know this is a tougher field."