09/25/2003 12:00AM

For Cactus Ridge, a time of transition

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Thoroughbred racing is in thrall to raw speed. Breeders create it. Owners crave it. Handicappers quantify it. And during the summer, a good 2-year-old is supposed to show it.

But for the best 2-year-olds of the crop, those that hope to dent the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, this is the time of year raw speed ceases to suffice, when a young horse must learn racing is a profession, not just a mad dash. And this is the time of year when horses with quality and stamina outdistance summer's precocious speedballs.

"You're always wanting to get a fast 2-year-old," said the trainer Bret Calhoun. "The next thing you worry about is can they be as good in the fall as they were in the summer."

Calhoun and the owner Toby Keith - a country music star - have a fast one. Cactus Ridge has won his first three starts, all without a challenge, and his last two Beyer Speed Figures, 94 and 100, are among the fastest for a 2-year-old this year.

His transition from summer to fall starts Saturday at Arlington, when he runs in the Arlington-Washington Futurity. This race is a one-turn mile. A win, and Cactus Ridge gets his shot at two turns in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Cactus Ridge has led throughout each of his races, and has shown blazing early speed without being sent to the lead by his rider. Calhoun never tried to put speed into his colt, nor has he tried to take it away from him. So far, Cactus Ridge's speed has been an asset, but at some point he will need to learn how to ration it.

"This is one of the most difficult times of year for a trainer, late summer and early fall," said the trainer Neil Howard, who has developed plenty of talented young horses. "In the summer, you've been pounding this speed into them on one hand, but now on the other hand, you're trying to take it away from them. You have to be very subtle in changing the way you do things. You don't want to throw too much at these horses and confuse them."

Calhoun hasn't confused Cactus Ridge yet. "He's a smart horse, very professional, or he wouldn't be where he is right now," Calhoun said.

Calhoun, a Texan who has come up rapidly the last few years, has never trained a horse this fast. He has managed to keep Cactus Ridge on a smooth development pattern this summer without asking too much of him.

On June 7, Cactus Ridge won the strongest Arlington 2-year-old maiden race of the summer, beating the promising horses Old Kent Road and Victory Light at 4 1/2 furlongs. Rather than wait for an allowance race, Calhoun sent Cactus Ridge to Canterbury Park for a low-level 5 1/2-furlong stakes on July 12, which he won by 15 lengths.

"I don't think you even know how good this horse is," the jockey Bobby Walker told Calhoun afterward.

Calhoun expected Cactus Ridge to be tested in the seven-furlong Ellis Park Juvenile on Aug. 17, but it didn't happen. With his ears pricked, Cactus Ridge outsprinted the rest of the field, galloping to a 6 1/2-half length win despite losing his focus in the stretch.

"It looked like he was out there doing 23 and 46 [seconds], but he was going 21 and 44," Calhoun said.

Since the Ellis Race, Cactus Ridge has worked four times, and Calhoun said he hasn't significantly altered Cactus Ridge's training to prepare him for longer races. He may not need to.

"A lot of it isn't anything that a trainer can do; it's the horse itself," said Pat Byrne, the trainer of two 2-year-old champions. "I think you hear a lot of baloney from some trainers about what they do to get a horse to stretch out. You can't make a horse do something he can't physically do, like make a sprinter go two turns. Good horsemen know, or hope, they can stretch a horse out, but they can't make one do it."

Cactus Ridge is by Hennessy and out of a Lycius mare named Double Park. He has the pedigree and the disposition to handle a mile this weekend. He and jockey Eddie Martin should spring to the lead Saturday, and then we will see if Cactus Ridge can do in the fall what he has done all summer.