09/28/2003 11:00PM

Bit players upstage the stars


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Sunday's Sky Classic Handicap at Woodbine was widely billed as a two-horse show, featuring Strut the Stage, the 5-year-old turf warrior who was making a pit stop on his way to the Canadian International, and Mobil, the 3-year-old colt who was facing his toughest test to date against older rivals.

The Sky Classic, conducted over 1 3/8 miles on soft turf, did conclude with a thrilling battle. The protagonists, however, were Bowman Mill, the lone invader in the field of six, and Lenny the Lender, an erstwhile claimer who appeared to be far out of his element.

Bowman Mill, a 5-year-old horse owned by Dr. John Chandler and trained by Michael Dickinson, was making just his ninth career start and was shipping into Woodbine for the second time.

In the Niagara Handicap, run over 1 1/2 miles of firm turf here Aug. 30, Bowman Mill had finished fourth, beaten 3 1/2 lengths by Strut the Stage.

"He ran very well there," said Dickinson, from his Maryland headquarters on Monday morning. "That was a big improvement. He improved [in the Sky Classic], and I think he'll improve again.

"We've always thought he was a horse with potential, but he's just getting his act together."

Bowman Mill is scheduled to return here Oct. 19 in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Canadian International, which will be run over 1 1/2 miles on turf.

Despite his success in the testing conditions here Sunday, Dickinson thinks Bowman Mill could prove even tougher under other circumstances.

"He didn't really like the ground [Sunday]," said Dickinson. "He's much better on firm going."

Weight may have doomed Strut the Stage

Mark Frostad, who trains Strut the Stage for Sam-Son Farm, believes that conceding weight combined with the soft conditions accounted for his horse's disappointing fourth-place finish, beaten 4 1/4 lengths.

Strut the Stage had been weighted at 123 pounds, the same impost he carried to victory in the Niagara. Bowman Mill carried 113 pounds, Lenny the Lender toted 110 pounds, and Mobil went under 115 pounds.

"I think he handles soft turf very well," said Frostad. "But giving horses 10 pounds, on soft turf, is like giving them 20 pounds. If they're all equal weights, he wins by many."

Strut the Stage is slated to proceed to the Canadian International, which will be run under scale-weight conditions with older horses carrying 126 pounds and 3-year-olds 119 pounds, with a three-pound allowance for fillies and mares.

"I thought he ran well [Sunday]," said Frostad. "He'll get lots out of that."

Several options for Mobil

Trainer Mike Keogh is unsure of his next move with Mobil, who came again to snatch third money from Strut the Stage.

While the Oct. 18 Hawthorne Derby had been under consideration, Keogh has not ruled out the Canadian International and also mentioned the $150,000 Ontario Derby, a Grade 3 race for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles here Oct. 13.

"It's a mile and an eighth on the dirt, and he's already proven he can do that - he won the Plate Trial," said Keogh. "And, it's straight 3-year-olds. It would be nice to try and put him over the million by the end of the year.

Mobil, owned and bred by Gustav Schickedanz, boosted his career earnings to $933,644 with Sunday's effort.

Blanc suspended for bumping 'Lenny'

Meanwhile, Lenny the Lender will not be running back in the Canadian International unless Richard Jukosky, his owner and trainer, ponies up the $60,000 supplementary fee.

But Lenny the Lender, a 7-year-old gelding who was making his 44th career appearance and was racing in a $10,000 starter allowance at Fort Erie just three starts back, gained plenty of admiration with his gritty effort.

For a moment it appeared that Lenny the Lender was going to get the money via a disqualification, as the head-on replay showed him being bumped hard by Bowman Mill.

The contact occurred just past the wire, however, and while the result remained unchanged Bowman Mill's rider, Brice Blanc, was handed a three-day suspension for the incident.

Willow Bunch proves capable around two turns

Last Saturday's featured La Lorgnette was less eventful but that was just fine with trainer Josie Carroll, who watched Willow Bunch lead throughout in a successful stakes debut.

Willow Bunch, owned by Jim and Alice Sapara, was unraced last year.

"We thought all along she was a nice filly," said Carroll, who saddled a stakes winner here for the third consecutive weekend.

"She showed us she could run at 2. It just took her a long time to mature, and be physically ready to run."

Willow Bunch ran fifth when debuting in a six-furlong turf race and has not lost since, winning at six and then seven furlongs before trying two turns for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile La Lorgnette.

"After her last start, I wasn't really sure what direction to go in," said Carroll, who had considered keeping Willow Bunch in allowance company following her first-level win at seven furlongs.

"I didn't know how tough the horses in the La Lorgnette would be, but I knew it would be a short field and it seemed like a good opportunity for her.

"Her pedigree said she would handle the distance. It's really hard to know until they do it, but we certainly thought she'd handle it."

Carroll currently is unsure where Willow Bunch will run next. The Jammed Lovely, the next main-track stakes for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies, is Nov. 2.

"I think we have a great 3-year-year-old filly program," said Carroll. "Our filly just didn't come to hand quickly enough to take advantage of it."