04/02/2003 1:00AM

Cherokee's Boy on road to where?


STICKNEY, Ill. - Trainer Gary Capuano has been to the Kentucky Derby before, but he's not sure he's ready to go back.

Capuano saddled the Kentucky Derby favorite in 1997, Captain Bodgit, who finished second to Silver Charm. Capuano has another good 3-year-old this year, Cherokee's Boy, but he hasn't booked passage yet to Louisville.

Cherokee's Boy has made more starts and won more races - five - than any of the nine horses he will meet Saturday in the $500,000 Illinois Derby, but he hasn't demonstrated the quality of a horse like Captain Bodgit.

Cherokee's Boy campaigned at mid-Atlantic racetracks as a 2-year-old, as did Captain Bodgit, and the two even ran in some of the same races. Capuano took Captain Bodgit to Florida in the winter of his 3-year-old season, but he left Cherokee's Boy in Maryland, where the colt rolled over Maryland-breds in his last two starts.

"The [Kentucky] Derby's not on my top-priority list." Capuano said. "He's seasoned enough, but he's never raced against horses of that quality. He'd have to do something special in this race for me to seriously consider it."

Capuano said he's more interested in the Preakness Stakes for Cherokee's Boy, though whether he's good enough to run in any of the Classics remains to be seen. Capuano had intended to test Cherokee's Boy in the Gotham Stakes, but Cherokee's Boy drew a terrible post and was scratched.

"He's just improved about every time he's run," Capuano said. "He's run two strong races this year, and we want to give him a chance to step up."

Reynolds gets them hot off the track

Why buy an unraced horse at auction when you can get one that's already racing? That philosophy has landed trainer Pat Reynolds several stakes horses the last few years. The most notable was Peeping Tom, who became a Grade 1 winner after Reynolds claimed him for $40,000, but Reynolds also has picked out Eltawaasul and Tom's Thunder, as well as Alysweep, who will be among the favorites in the Illinois Derby.

Alysweep had lost two maiden allowance races when Reynolds and owner Michael Dubb claimed him out of an easy win in a $75,000 maiden claimer. He has since won an allowance race and two stakes in three starts, including an easy victory in last month's Grade 3 Gotham Stakes.

Reynolds's secret? "We've had some good luck," he said.

"It's tough to do it right in the $25,000 to $35,000 range. If you can claim a fairly fresh horse at the $75,000 claiming level, sometimes you can do small stuff that helps them. This particular horse had a lot going for him. First of all is his pedigree," said Reynolds.

Alysweep is by End Sweep, known more as a sire of sprinters than route horses, but Reynolds said Alysweep seems molded along the lines of his dam's sire, the long-winded Alysheba, as much as his sire.

"I don't think distance is going to be a problem for him," he said.

Fiel size down at meet

Hawthorne racing secretary Gary Duch wants to know: Where have all the horses gone? Hawthorne's fall and winter meet featured huge fields, which lured bettors to play races even if the horses running in them lacked quality. But after averaging 9.6 starters per race in a meet that ended Jan. 1, Hawthorne has averaged only eight starters per race so far this spring.

"On paper, before this meet started, it looked like we'd have 80 or 90 empty stalls," Duch said. "When we started running, we had 800 or 900 empty stalls. We're really lacking claiming horses. In the winter, I could fill claiming races at all the levels. Now, I'm getting claiming races I can't even fill. How could it be so much different than last year?"

Hawthorne will get a boost April 18, when the turf course is expected to open. "I'm going to be writing as many turf races as I can," Duch said.

Talknow may not be one to back

Has Talknow finally hit the wall? It's a question handicappers must answer in order to gamble on Hawthorne's featured seventh race Friday, a fourth-level sprint allowance with a $75,000 claiming option.

Talknow was claimed for $5,000 two autumns ago by trainer Tom Tomillo and surely ranks as one of the best low-level claims in recent memory. Last year alone, he won 9 of 13 starts for earnings of more than $181,000, and in seven career starts at Hawthorne, Talknow has won six times.

But Feb. 1 at Oaklawn, Talknow threw in his first clunker since Tomillo claimed him, finishing last in the $50,000 King Cotton. He was overmatched by the race's winner, Beau's Town, but it was troubling to see him trail throughout the race and fade steadily.

Talknow faces lesser horses this time, but at a short price, bettors should consider looking elsewhere. Landing on My Extolled Honor might work. My Extolled Honor, 1 for 1 at Hawthorne, enters this race a fresh horse, and looked good in a Feb. 16 optional claimer at Fair Grounds, where he was placed first via disqualification after having a strong late run impeded by his rival.