09/14/2004 11:00PM

Canada superior to U.S. in this Atto


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - The Grade 1 Atto Mile has been dominated by United States invaders throughout its seven-year history, but this year's renewal on Sunday at Woodbine could be a different story.

One of strongest local contingents in the race's existence will compete in the $1 million turf race, including the two-three finishers from last year's running, Soaring Free and Perfect Soul. Soaring Free will be favored, but he is by no means a lead-pipe cinch.

Soaring Free looked the part of a winner at the eighth pole in last year's Atto, but weakened slightly in the final furlong and finished a half-length behind Touch of the Blues, who subsequently ran second in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Voted the 2003 Sovereign Award as champion sprinter, Soaring Free is at his best from six to seven furlongs, and the 2003 Atto is the only time he has run in the top three in three starts at a mile on turf.

Soaring Free won Woodbine's main prep for the Atto, the seven-furlong Play the King Handicap, both last year and this year. However, that Grade 3 stakes has never produced an Atto winner. In fact, of the 13 runners to go in the Atto after competing in the Play the King, only Soaring Free has hit the board.

Perfect Soul and Slew Valley were both unplaced last out, in the 1 3/8-mile Chinese Cultural Centre Stakes. They are coming into the Atto off an eight-week break, but such a layoff isn't a major negative. Good Journey won the 2002 Atto after a nine-week layoff, and Labeeb was off 13 weeks before winning the 1998 running.

Labeeb is one of four California shippers to have won the Atto, if you include the 1999 running, in which Hawksley Hill finished first but was disqualified because his rider's whip struck a rival in the stretch. No horses from California or Europe are expected in this year's Atto.

Millennium Dragon, Kathir, and Christine's Outlaw make up the likely U.S. contingent in this year's Atto.

Millennium Dragon has been second in each of his last three starts, including the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap, and hasn't run since he lost by a neck to Christine's Outlaw in the Grade 3 Poker Handicap on July 10 at Belmont.

Two past winners of the one-mile Poker went straight into the Atto. They were Affirmed Success, who was a beaten a nose in the 2001 Atto, and Smarty Jones's sire, Elusive Quality, who was fourth as the favorite in the 1998 Atto.

Kathir won an allowance race at Monmouth Park two starts back, and finished a close second there most recently in the Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap. The past two Atto runners who came out of a race at Monmouth, Autonomy in 2002 and Kiridashi in 1997, both failed miserably.

In his lone outing since the Poker, Christine's Outlaw finished a troubled ninth in Saratoga's Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap, which has yielded only two Atto starters over the years: Tap the Admiral (2003) and Bomfim (1999), who both ran 10th in the Atto after finishing third in the 1 1/16-mile Fourstardave.

Royal Regalia, a Stronach Stable runner based in Ontario, set all the fractions in this year's Fourstardave, and gave way in deep stretch to end up third. He set Woodbine's course record for a mile (1:31.84 seconds) when he won his most recent race, a $100,000 optional claimer.

Royal Regalia and Christine's Outlaw are the likely Atto pacemakers, while Soaring Free should be breathing down their necks from the outset. No front-runner has won the Atto, although a few have come close, including 2002 runner-up Chopinina.

Stalkers - horses within four lengths of the leader at the half-mile point - have won the Atto twice. Closers were victorious in the other five runnings.

So you'll want a local horse who is a closer. Perfect Soul best fits the bill.

Atto Mile candidates

Purse: $1 million; 1 mile (turf); Grade 1

Christine's OutlawR. Dominguez119
KathirS. Callaghan117
Millennium DragonR. Migliore119
Perfect SoulC. Nakatani121
Royal RegaliaJ. Jones117
Slew ValleyJ. McAleney121
Soaring FreeT. Kabel119