09/09/2003 11:00PM

Captain Nicholas back fast

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - There was Captain Nicholas, and there - little dots in the rearview mirror - was the rest of the field.

This was the way things looked when five horses ran around Arlington's grass course in an overnight handicap on Aug. 30. The race was at 1 1/2 miles, farther than Captain Nicholas usually runs, and when the only other horse with speed scratched from the race, Captain Nicholas was left to control the pace.

He opened up a few lengths, which quickly became five, then 10, and after about seven furlongs, Captain Nicholas led by perhaps 12 lengths. But he was caught turning home and finished fourth.

"I just felt he fell asleep on the front end making such an easy lead," said Captain Nicholas's trainer, Becky Maker. "He came out of the race great. He was pulling the hotwalker all around the barn when he cooled out."

And that is why Captain Nicholas returns on less than two weeks' rest in Arlington's featured eighth race on Friday. Eight others were entered in the one-mile grass race, but two will start only if rain forces a switch to dirt. The race is for third-level allowance horses or $62,500 claimers, which makes it a step down in class for Captain Nicholas, who ran in two stakes races before the overnight handicap late last month.

Owned by the Dare to Dream Stable, Captain Nicholas was a private purchase early this spring. He got good in April and has held his form since then, and off four starts since Maker took over his training, Captain Nicholas is the horse to beat Friday.

Maker dismisses worries about Captain Nicholas returning on short rest. "I'm not really concerned about that at all," she said.

A confirmed front-runner, Captain Nicholas could have early company. Toomuch Chavez, second in a weaker race at this class level in his last start, always shows speed in route races, and he figures to come out running from post 4, one stall inside Captain Nicholas. Still, Captain Nicholas's speed is controllable, and jockey Frank Lovato can get a favorable trip whether he makes the front or sits off the flank of Toomuch Chavez.

The opposition includes Stokosky, a one-time stakes horse in from Kentucky for the Bill Mott Stable; Rockchalk Jayhawk, an effective performer at this class level; and Image, who won the Claiming Crown Emerald but suffered a surprising defeat in a starter-allowance race here late last month.