09/27/2004 11:00PM

Big money, small field

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CHICAGO - A major-league purse of $750,000 should lure good handicap horses to Chicago this weekend, but the siren call of Saturday's Hawthorne Gold Cup mainly is falling on deaf ears.

Hustling Hawthorne racing officials are staring at a short field in the Grade 2 Gold Cup, which is scheduled as a stepping-stone for the Breeders' Cup Classic and boasts the purse power to lure a top horse. As of Monday, the 1 1/4-mile race had only three confirmed starters, and among that trio Perfect Drift is the only one with name recognition. Quest Star, mostly a grass horse, and Sonic West, a distant third in the Sept. 18 Kentucky Cup Classic, also are expected to ship for the race.

The Gold Cup faces competition on both coasts - this weekend from the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the East, the Goodwood Handicap in California, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Turfway Park Fall Championship, and on Oct. 8 from the Meadowlands Cup. It is a case of too many races and too few horses.

Officials here hoped that either Funny Cide or Evening Attire would defect from the Jockey Club Gold Cup and come to Hawthorne, but with Peace Rules having been retired and taken out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, neither of those two is leaving home. But since Hawthorne's race is coming up short, Bobby Frankel is considering the spot for Powerful Touch, an easy Belmont Park allowance winner Sept. 6.

The anticipated short field here also has Neil Howard reconsidering his options with Alumni Hall, fourth last out in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup. Howard has been pointing Alumni Hall for the Turfway race, but said there was a slim chance he would ship to Hawthorne instead.

"I'm not ruling it out," Howard said. "I had it all set for the race at Turfway, but I'd like to take advantage of the weight we'd be getting from Perfect Drift."

Perfect Drift was assigned 121 pounds for the Gold Cup, Alumni Hall 111.

Cuccurullo working for Asmussen

Pat Cuccurullo has returned to training horses in Chicago, but he is doing so as the assistant for trainer Steve Asmussen. Asmussen, on pace to set an all-time training record for wins in a year, has about 35 horses at Hawthorne this meet, a much stronger presence than in recent seasons. Asmussen claimed three horses for himself here Sunday.

Cuccurullo took time off after splitting with owner Frank Calabrese this summer at Arlington, about seven months after taking over from Wayne Catalano as Calabrese's private trainer.

"I just had a little vacation time with the family," said Cuccurullo.

This is Cuccurullo's second stint as an Asmussen assistant. Six years ago, after Cuccurullo had left racing to pursue other business opportunities, he oversaw an Asmussen string at Oaklawn Park.

"He needed somebody to work here, and I needed work, and that's about the whole story," Cuccurullo said Tuesday morning.

Three Hour Nap Kentucky-bound?

Arlington-Washington Futurity winner Three Hour Nap remains a possible starter in the Oct. 9 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, but trainer and co-owner Hugh Robertson said the colt would only ship to Kentucky if he looked like one of the top choices in the race.

"If there were three or four heavy hitters coming in, I wouldn't go," Robertson said. "If we could be third or fourth choice, I'd probably go. It is $500,000."

Three Hour Nap, 3 for 3 in his career, came out of his Arlington-Washington Futurity win in good physical condition. If he hadn't, Robertson wouldn't even be entertaining a trip to Keeneland. But Robertson wants to see Three Hour Nap breeze and assess the competition before drawing up any final plans.

"I just don't like running a 2-year-old so much in such a short time," he said. "If he were to go to Keeneland, that'd be it for the year."

Don't overthink Thursday allowance

There is no real feature on Hawthorne's nine-race Thursday program. An entry-level allowance, race 6, will have to suffice as the headliner.

The race is for fillies, and like most Hawthorne first-level allowance races, it boasts a wide range of horses. There are recent claimers, ex-claimers, conditioned claimers - and even a real allowance horse, Creeker's Surprise. Of the 10 horses entered in the race, only Creeker's Surprise and Take D'Tour have never run for a claiming price. How about those two for the exacta?

Creeker's Surprise, from the barn of trainer Jerry Calvin, had a decent Oaklawn meet late last winter, finishing second and fourth in maiden races to start her career before breaking through with a victory on March 25. But the filly never had a chance to build on her victory: Creeker's Surprise didn't run again until Sept. 12, when she closed from far back to finish third in a decent Arlington allowance sprint. That race was at six furlongs, Thursday's at 6 1/2, and the added ground is to Creeker's Surprise's benefit.

Take D'Tour, trained by Noel Hickey, has worked fast at Canterbury Park for her first start in two months.