07/24/2003 12:00AM

Best Minister the heavyweight here

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The $100,000 Round Table is supposed to be a nice regional race for a Midwest-based 3-year-old creeping toward graded stakes company. One horse this year, however, already has been down that road.

Best Minister beat Grade 2 Swaps winner During in the Sir Barton Stakes last spring, a race that would have landed him a spot in the Belmont Stakes had Best Minister not gotten sick the week of the race. Instead, Best Minister surfaced in the Grade 2 Dwyer earlier this month at Belmont Park, and though he was a distant fifth that day, Best Minister may lay over six rivals in the Round Table on Saturday at Arlington.

"I honestly don't know if we can beat him," said Davey Duggan, assistant trainer to Eoin Harty, who has Absent Friend for the Round Table. "They classify that horse a bit higher. I'd prefer it if he wasn't in there."

Absent Friend comes off a third-place finish in the $250,000 Iowa Derby, and Duggan said he's "an improving horse."

Those words also describe Wiggins, an Illinois-bred colt coming off the best race of his career, a five-length win over statebreds in the $86,000 Springfield Stakes last month.

"My horse is doing awful good, never better than this," said trainer Tony Granitz. "The biggest issue with him is whether he can get a mile and an eighth."

That and the presence of Best Minister, who goes back to two-turn racing after trying Belmont's one-turn 1 1/16 miles in the Dwyer.

"I really think this his a horse that needs two turns for his best race," said trainer Kenny McPeek. "I'm not convinced 1 1/16 miles around one turn did him any favors last time."

Morning Merry, Blackinton, Battle Tank and Megoman also were entered, but like Wiggins and Absent Friend, they may be looking at Best Minister at the finish.

Minor setback for Midway Road

Granitz, Wiggins's trainer, said the horse he really feared Saturday was Midway Road, who had been scheduled to run in the Round Table before coming up with a problem this week.

Trainer Neil Howard said Midway Road appeared to have come out of his final Round Table work Tuesday in good shape, but began "acting funny" that afternoon and was diagnosed with a bruised foot.

"In fact, he popped a quarter crack this morning by the bar of his foot," Howard said on Thursday. "There was no way we could get it all together in time for Saturday's race."

Midway Road's most noteworthy performance was his second to Funny Cide in the Preakness, but he had a terrible trip last month in the Ohio Derby. Howard said he would consider the Aug. 9 West Virginia Derby or, failing that, a Saratoga allowance race.

"This isn't anything serious," Howard said. "It's more that the timing is bad."

Top-flight day at the races

Saturday's card is billed as Million Preview Day. That's speculative, depending on which horses, if any, go on to race on the Arlington Million card. What is more certain is that this program is among the finest of the meet.

Besides the three Million Preview stakes, there are two overnight stakes and plenty of allowance and maiden action. Summer Mis tops the sixth race, a handicap for statebred fillies and mares, while the third race, dubbed the Honest Pleasure, is for 2-year-olds.

Two horses coming out of the Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill are the top choices in the Honest Pleasure. One of them, First Money, held on for second in the race despite disputing a furious pace, while the other, Next Bandit, didn't run a lick.

But Next Bandit easily won the first two starts of his career, both at Lone Star, and is eligible to bounce back Saturday.

"I think he just lost his composure last time," said trainer Bret Calhoun. "He'd been very professional, but man, he just blew his mind at Churchill. He tried to bolt; he fought the rider the whole way. It was a big-time letdown, but I think you'll see a different horse this weekend."

Cactus Ridge a young speedster

Meanwhile, Calhoun has stabled in his Arlington barn one of the fastest 2-year-olds in the country, Cactus Ridge, who has begun his career with two impressive victories.

Cactus Ridge won the strongest 2-year-old maiden race of the Arlington season in his career debut on June 7, then went to Canterbury Park and won the Canterbury Juvenile by 15 lengths - with his ears pricked.

The Canterbury win earned Cactus Ridge a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, an exceptional number for an early-season 2-year-old.

"We're looking at the Sapling at Monmouth for his next start, and then I'd like to come back for the Arlington-Washington Futurity," Calhoun said.

"He's a gorgeous horse. He'd breezed well, but did I know he was that kind of horse? No. He's totally relaxed, and he has a good mind. I don't see why he wouldn't stretch out."