05/05/2004 11:00PM

Beret back to start campaign in Nicole

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CHICAGO - The question is whether Beret can come back strong after a 30-week layoff, but it is a question she already has answered. Last June, Beret raced after spending about seven months on the shelf, and she cruised to a second-level allowance victory over the Arlington Park turf course. The scene Saturday is Hawthorne's turf, and Beret runs in the $40,000 Nicole Stakes, but the forecast is for a similar result.

Beret, 5, is the best horse in a couple of years to come out of the Harvey Vanier barn - only Vanier isn't training her. Not yet. At Hawthorne, Vanier's son-in-law, Brian Williamson, handles the stock, with Vanier's name going down on the form when Chicago racing shifts to Arlington. Vanier's wife, Nancy, and Williamson's wife, Lyda, own Beret, and last season it was at Hawthorne with Brian Williamson that Beret put in the miles for her comeback.

"I think once you win with them after a layoff and when they're fresh, then you know you can get them fit enough to win first time out," Williamson said Thursday afternoon.

This is the year Beret's peoplesay they hope Beret can fully follow through on her promise. Beret won her final start of 2002, and two more to start 2003, and her third in the Grade 3 Modesty last July was not bad. The rest of the season went sour.

Beret slightly bled through Lasix in the Modesty, and by late summer, her ankles were starting to become an issue. Beret's form was slipping, and after a poor race in September, she was put out to pasture.

"Knock on wood, her ankles are great now," Williamson said. "Hopefully, I've learned something, and she can hold her form a little longer."

Nine others were entered in the Nicole, carded for 1 1/16 miles, and after Beret, the best horse might be Delicatessa. She, too, makes her first start of the year, but unlike Beret, Delicatessa needed time to race into peak form last year. Chilling Effect and Blue Sky Baby also rate as contenders.

Mystery Giver strong in defeat

For the better part of four seasons, the trainer Chris Block has labored and worried over Mystery Giver. Go back even farther, and Block's family bred the horse. Block has seen Mystery Giver, now 6, transformed from a reedy, inconsistent racehorse a few seasons ago into one of the better grass horses in the country. And never did he appreciate it more than when Mystery Giver lost his last race.

A loss is a loss, but Mystery Giver's third-place finish behind Stroll and Sweet Return last weekend in the Grade 1 Early Times Turf Classic is about as sweet as the show spot gets. Mystery Giver loathed a wet Churchill Downs grass course last fall, but he ran through a bog there this time. The only two pace horses in Saturday's race finished one-two, and Mystery Giver missed running down the second of them by a whisker. "It looked like he was the only closer running," Block said.

And finally, Mystery Giver's run validated his win in late March in the Mervin Muniz Handicap at Fair Grounds.

"Yes, I do feel like he can do this every time now," Block said this week. "We know how to manage him a bit better."

Proper management at this point calls for a freshening, Block said. Mystery Giver will get one, but perhaps not for too long. Block said he has only one race in mind at the moment, the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on June 5 at Belmont, and that Mystery Giver was "at best 50-50" to wind up in that spot.

Lanerie returning from links

The jockey Corey Lanerie typically spends his April steering for holes, whipping and driving at Lone Star Park. Since the Fair Grounds meet ended in late March, Lanerie's only driving has come off the tee. When he found a hole, it had a golf ball in it.

Yes, Lanerie - and by association, his agent Rick Mocklin - did a wild and crazy thing this spring: They took time off.

Lanerie has resurfaced. He is booked to ride Friday at Hawthorne and should hit the ground running when Arlington opens next week.

Each year, Lanerie is among the leading riders at Lone Star, and he typically has arrived at Arlington in mid-summer, when Lone Star ends. But Lanerie and trainer Steve Asmussen - one of his main Lone Star clients - split last winter at Fair Grounds, and Lanerie came up with another plan of attack.

"I did a lot of fishing, and Corey golfed," Mocklin said. "It was kind of fun to wake up each day and say, 'Let's see what I'm gonna do.' "

Lanerie began working horses at Arlington on Tuesday. "I'm excited about our business," Mocklin said. "I feel good about where we're going to be."

Coach Jimi Lee stymied on road

You don't go from Chicago to Altoona, Iowa, for fun. Chicago horsemen who can't find a local spot go there to win a race. And things have not quite been working out.

Last Saturday, Coach Jimi Lee, one of the best sprinters around, was beaten as the heavy favorite in the $50,000 Prairie Express Stakes. Shandy, another good local sprinter, suffered a defeat there at odds-on in an allowance race Monday.

"The horse was the best horse," claimed Coach Jimi Lee's trainer, Jimmy DiVito. "He went 21 and 2 for the first quarter. It was like they tag-teamed him on the lead."

DiVito has been targeting the Hanshin Handicap at Arlington as Coach Jimi Lee's main short-term goal, and the Prairie race to function as a stepping-stone.

"I wanted to get a race into him," DiVito said, "but not a losing race."