02/25/2006 12:00AM

Bucksteeler's made great strides

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Is a horse that lost a conditioned $10,000 claimer just four races ago good enough to win an open second-level allowance race? Well, that depends on the level of competition.

The featured sixth race Monday at the National Jockey Club meet at Hawthorne is indeed for second-level allowance horses, and, yes, Bucksteeler lost a $10,000 nonwinners-of-two claimer Oct. 19 at Hoosier Park. But that was the beginning of major progress for the 4-year-old Bucksteeler.

"He's much improved, believe me," said Steve Manley, Bucksteeler's Fairmount Park-based trainer.

Bucksteeler was one of only six entered in the Monday feature, carded for six furlongs on a main track that was favoring speed throughout Friday's opening-day program and early Saturday. Bucksteeler raced at this class level here Dec. 28 in his most recent start and finished fifth of nine, but there was trouble in his trip that day, and the field was substantially deeper than the one he meets Monday.

"I believe he's good enough to win," Manley said. "He's been breezing real good over here" at Fairmount.

Fairmount doesn't begin until March 14, and Manley, who said he would have several horses in during next weekend's races, is one of several downstate outfits shipping north to Hawthorne.

Trainer Dennis Ebert has not shipped north at all, having chosen to remain in Florida for now. He sent several horses with recent Tampa form into trainer Chris Block's Hawthorne barn, including Battle Tank, who also has a decent shot in Monday's sixth. Block said he's only trained Battle Tank for about 10 days, and basically is going off Battle Tank's Florida training.

"Dennis told me where they were and what they've been doing," Block said.

Battle Tank just turned 6, and though he showed promise on this circuit as far back as the summer of his 2-year-old season, he has been stuck at this second-allowance condition since - believe it or not - 2003. Battle Tank went 0-5 in 2004 and 0-7 in 2005, but he is not overmatched in this spot.

Dormy Lake won an entry-level allowance last out at Mountaineer Park and may be the speed of this race. Scottie got very good late last year, but ended his 2005 season with a dud. Otis Ridge won an entry-level allowance at the Hawthorne fall meet at odds of 66-1, but showed much less in three subsequent starts, and Really Big Boy is about a year removed from his best form.