05/08/2002 11:00PM

Champ returns, but is he ready?

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Will the third time be the charm for A Fleets Dancer?

Canada's reigning champion older horse, A Fleets Dancer makes his seasonal bow in Saturday's Eclipse Handicap after having finished fourth in the last two runnings of the 1 1/16-mile stakes.

Roger Attfield, who trains the 7-year-old A Fleets Dancer for Cam Allard, is cautious when discussing the horse's prospects for the Eclipse, his first start since Dec. 29.

"I gave him some time off this winter, and he got a little big on me," said Attfield, who is back at Woodbine after spending the off-season at Florida's Payson Park and in Kentucky. "He wasn't going to be fit enough to run at Keeneland.

"He could very well be short; he only just made it to this race off his training schedule. He's a very hard horse to get a line on off works. He never works the same all the time. But he's got to get going, obviously."

Still, Attfield is not about to rule out the possibility of victory by A Fleets Dancer, a horse who marches to his own drummer.

"He's going well," said Attfield. "A lot depends on his attitude."

A Fleets Dancer worked six furlongs in 1:14.60 on the training track here Tuesday.

Sea Run continues comeback

A Fleets Dancer will be running in an entry with Sea Run, a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred who makes his local debut and second start of the year.

Sea Run won his maiden impressively at Gulfstream in March 2001 for owner-trainer Diane Perkins, a former Attfield client. Shortly thereafter, Attfield and Bill Werner bought Sea Run, and in his first start for them Sea Run won an allowance at Keeneland in April, which turned out to be his last race of that year.

"He hurt his back and was all messed up," said Attfield. "We just gave him a lot of time off.

"I always thought he was cut out to be a pretty nice horse. That's why I bought him."

Sea Run was making his first start in more than a year when he returned to action April 20 in a 1 1/16-mile allowance over a muddy track at Keeneland. He finished second to a 21-1 shot, which surprised Attfield.

"I didn't think he could possibly get beaten," he said.

Sweetest Thing to Belmont

Sweetest Thing, last year's Sovereign Award-winning turf female, is slated to make her next start in Belmont's June 1 Sheepshead Bay Handicap, Attfield said. The Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay is a $150,000, 1 3/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares.

A Canadian-bred 4-year-old who won the Breeders' and Wonder Where here last year, Sweetest Thing captured the Grade 3 Bewitch over 1 1/2 miles of turf at Keeneland in her last start. It was her first graded stakes victory.

Plate and Oaks question marks

Attfield has won the Queen's Plate seven times and the Canadian (now Labatt Woodbine) Oaks on three occasions, but he can cite no solid candidate for either race this year.

"There are all sorts of ifs, ands, and buts at the moment," he said.

El Soprano, winner of the Cup and Saucer over 1 1/16 miles of soft turf here last September, may be the classiest of Attfield's Plate eligibles, but his dirt form remains suspect.

A homebred colt by El Prado, El Soprano started twice on the main track here last year, finishing third when he debuted at five furlongs in August and last of 10 when he concluded his campaign with a troubled run in the 1 1/8-mile Coronation Futurity for his former trainer, Kevin Attard.

"One would presume he's a much better horse on turf," said Attfield, "but he's training very well on dirt. It's a question of making a decision on whether you give him another shot on the dirt, to see where you are, or make a turf career for him."

El Soprano worked six furlongs in 1:15.40 on the main track under jockey Robert Landry here Thursday.

"It was a nice, solid work," said Attfield.

Attfield also had Plate aspirations for Phantom Light, who finished second over 1 1/16 miles in his second career start here last fall. He recently bruised a foot and lost some training, Attfield said.

Alpha Heat, a potential Oaks candidate, worked well here last Tuesday but has not raced since Nov. 10.

A homebred by Alphabet Soup, Alpha Heat won first out at six furlongs last October, but finished eighth in her only subsequent outing and emerged from the race with a fractured tibia.

Three other Attfield-trained Oaks nominees - Galadriel, Bala, and Maud Gonne - all lost in seven-furlong allowance races last week in their first race of the year.

Galadriel won the restricted South Ocean over 1 1/16 miles here last fall, but finished last of five when facing older rivals here last Friday.

Bala had won her maiden at 1 1/16 miles in her final start at 2, but ended eighth in her return here Saturday. Maud Gonne was 11th in the same race.

Happy to Be Home, also an Attfield Oaks nominee, won first out out last year but has yet to start in 2002.