10/03/2008 12:00AM

Block lifts two out of maiden ranks

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Horseplayers regularly encounter the horse known as the professional maiden. It's uncertain at what point the line marking the edge of professional maidendom is crossed - 15 starts without a win? 20? - but handicappers think they know one when they see one.

Thursday at Hawthorne Race Course, the trainer Chris Block managed to steer two of his winless charges away from the shoals of professional maidenhood. Burnt Hickory won Thursday's opener, a $10,000 Illinois-bred maiden claimer, in her 12th career start. And in race 9, Applesolutely Wild won an Illinois-bred maiden special weight in the eighth start of his career.

The Applesolutely Wild case was especially interesting, since somehow he had managed to finish second in his first seven starts. Thursday, however, Applesolutely Wild didn't just clear the maiden ranks, he fled them, winning off by more than seven lengths.

In fact, Applesolutely Wild was probably never in danger of earning professional-maiden status, and Block believes it was mere coincidence that led to the run of seven straight second-place finishes.

"If some closer had been coming fast, he would have run third or fourth a couple times," Block said.

We humans tend to try and impart human characteristics to equines. The whole concept of a professional maiden, in fact, rests on the idea that a horse just doesn't try hard enough to win. Block doesn't buy into that psychology.

"I do think some horses will wait on other horses, looking for competition, if they make the lead," Block said. "They're used to working in company. All of a sudden, they're alone out there, and they're like, 'Whoa.' "

Applesolutely Wild, a Dick Duchossois-owned homebred, just took some tinkering. Block said he had lost a couple of races at Arlington because he lugged in. A nearly full-cup blinker on his left eye took care of that. And it turns out Applesolutely Wild might well prefer dirt to Polytrack; he finished much better on Thursday than he had across town.

As for Burnt Hickory, hers was a case of getting into a race in which six other horses happened to be slower. Burnt Hickory finished her final half-furlong in a sluggish 7.14 seconds, but she did not wait on horses or lose her focus. All in all, the day seemed like a success for Block.

"It was a really good day until 8:30 last night," Block said.

About that time, the Chicago Cubs - Block's team - gave up five runs in the second inning of their playoff game with the Los Angeles Dodgers, which the Cubs eventually lost 10-3. Going into Saturday night's game, the Cubs were one more defeat from being eliminated, which would make it an even 100 years since their last World Series win - a streak that even a hardened professional maiden could appreciate.

Ness not ready to panic

With a big string of horses here and a 32 percent win rate for 2008, the trainer Jamie Ness figured to come out guns blazing at the Hawthorne meet. But after five racing days here, Ness-trained horses had compiled a 0-0-1 record from 11 starts.

"They're not just losing; they're really not getting close," Ness said Friday morning, far from panicking in his barn office here.

In his second year as a head trainer, Ness said, he endured a 53-race losing streak, so losing 11 to start the season here doesn't feel like the end of the world. Moreover, Ness feels pretty certain his horses are just getting tired in the stretch runs of Hawthorne dirt races.

"The horses I have came from Canterbury and Prairie Meadows, and those are really fast tracks," Ness said. "The track here is much more tiring. They're just getting to the top of the lane and running out of gas."

Ness won 22 races here last fall, but also started slowly in 2007, when he was 1 for 14 after a couple of racing weeks before winning eight times in the next two weeks or so. The same sort of thing could happen again this year, as those fast-track-fit horses begin acclimating to the Hawthorne surface.

Ness is not the only high-percentage trainer winless so far at Hawthorne: Arlington's perennial leading trainer, Wayne Catalano, went into Friday's card with a 0-0-0 record from seven runners. Catalano won 26 races at the meet last fall.

* Classic Choice looks tough to get past in Sunday's featured race 6, an Illinois-bred second-level allowance carded for one mile on turf.