07/22/2003 11:00PM

Best Minister blessed

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CHICAGO - Kenny McPeek did not come to Arlington Park looking for a challenge, and no trace of disappointment crept into his voice Wednesday upon hearing Midway Road had not been entered for Saturday's $100,000 Round Table Stakes.

"The people at Arlington had been telling me all week it was me and Midway Road," McPeek said. "I guess that makes us the favorite."

It does indeed, as the McPeek-trained Best Minister, once a hopeful for the Belmont Stakes, figures a heavy favorite in the Round Table, one of three stakes here Saturday, dubbed Million Preview Day at Arlington.

Besides the Round Table, the Grade 3 Modesty and the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap also were drawn late Wednesday afternoon, and both are strong races. The Modesty has drawn the talented turf mare Owsley from New York, but she has a formidable opponent in Bien Nicole.

An eclectic field of 11 went in the Arlington Handicap, including several horses from both coasts as well as Honor in War, winner of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve earlier this year at Churchill Downs.

But while the Modesty is linked to the Grade 1 Beverly D., and the Handicap has a connection to the Million, the Round Table, at nine furlongs on dirt, has only a tenuous association with the Grade 1 Secretariat on Million Day. In fact, should Best Minister step forward with an especially strong effort here Saturday, McPeek wouldn't rule out a start in the Travers at Saratoga.

"But let's get this one out of the way first," he said, sensibly.

Best Minister was slow to win his maiden, but broke through with a blowout win at Keeneland, and followed that race with an easy victory in the $100,000 Sir Barton at Pimlico, an effort that prompted his connections to consider the Belmont. But Best Minister took ill at the wrong time and wound up instead in the Grade 2 Dwyer July 6 at Belmont, where he never factored and finished fifth, beaten 10 lengths by Strong Hope.

McPeek thinks a return to two turns in the seven-horse Round Table will benefit his colt. "This is a nice logical spot for the horse," McPeek said.

Burke is back

Donald Burke trains a short string of turf horses in Southern California, but Arlington was like his second home last year. Three times last season Burke came here with Falcon Flight, who won the Arlington Handicap, was a tough-luck fifth in the Arlington Million, and finished third in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Wear and tear finally caught up with Falcon Flight, who was retired early this year, but Burke is back at Arlington with two horses for Million Preview Day: Moonlady runs in the Modesty, while Tijiyr will try to give Burke and owner Gary Tanaka their second straight win in the Arlington Handicap.

On form alone, Tijiyr seems an unlikely candidate to do so. Winner of the Explosive Bid in 2001, Tijiyr missed a year of racing before a comeback this May. A distant ninth in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile, Tijiyr finished fifth in a high-end allowance June 13 at Hollywood, a race Burke said signaled improvement.

"He ran a good race last time, and I think it's really going to help him," Burke said. "He was coming through on the inside and he was stopped. I don't think he was going to win, but he was going to be a much better third."

Tijiyr missed time, Burke said, because of a "bunch of problems. He had ankles, he had a suspensory, he had trouble with his foot. He's 7 now, and when they get to be that age, sometimes they take a few races to get back."

Burke would have considered California allowance races for both Tijiyr and Moonlady, but said he couldn't find suitable spots to run.

"It's problematic, but the races aren't filling," he said. "You leave yourself open to criticism with things like this, but sometimes you have to make your move."

Cashel Castle nearing a race

Cashel Castle, unraced since finishing second in the 2002 Derby Trial 15 months ago, had his first published workout since then, breezing five furlongs in 1:02.80 on Friday.

Before running second to Sky Terrace in the Derby Trial, Cashel Castle easily won the first five starts of his career. His combined margin of victory in those races was nearly

30 lengths. But Cashel Castle came out of the loss with a problem in his left front leg that got progressively worse late last spring, and Cashel Castle finally was sent to a farm for a long rest.

He returned to training this spring at Shadybrook Farm outside Ocala, Fla., and a combination of gallops, light breezes, and swimming have gotten the horse fairly fit.

"Right now, everything's okay, but with a situation like his, you take things day by day," said trainer Chris Block.

Block estimated Cashel Castle was about three works away from a race, and said if all went well, Cashel Castle could race within a month.

- Jockey Jesse Campbell suffered a concussion in Wednesday's second race when his mount, Great Eight, broke down approaching the finish line.