04/17/2002 11:00PM

Chicago Six down, but not yet out

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CHICAGO - Chicago Six has been down before, down so low that he got stuck as a lower-level claimer. He rose up to become one of the best Illinois-breds in recent history, so don't bury him yet.

It will be tempting to do so Saturday when Chicago Six runs in the $200,000 National Jockey Club Handicap at Sportsman's Park. A year ago, the race put an exclamation point on Chicago Six's ascent, when he beat the classy Guided Tour for his first graded stakes win. But three weeks ago, in a restricted Illinois-bred stakes, Chicago Six finished fifth of nine at odds of 3-5.

The 7-year-old Chicago Six will need much more if he's to repeat in the Grade 3 NJC Handicap. He faces a strong field that includes Grade 2 winner Ubiquity, Sportsman's Park Breeders' Cup winner McMahon, and the improving Hail the Chief. Shippers Deferred Comp and E Z Glory, and locals Apalachee Special and Bandana complete the lineup.

It wasn't just Chicago Six's meteoric rise out of the claiming ranks, but his return from poor form late last summer to win the $100,000 Prairie Meadows Handicap that suggests the horse has more left. A short one-week break between starts could have dulled Chicago Six in his most recent race, and then there's the pointed assessment of the taciturn trainer J. R. Smith Sr. "He's awfully sharp right now," Smith said.

Who better to know? Smith pulled the strings that unlocked Chicago Six's potential, and orchestrated owner Richard Trebat's $18,000 claim of the horse two and a half years ago. Chicago Six now sports a bankroll of more than $721,000.

Chicago Six has won 6 of 8 at Sportsman's, but Smith feels the inside speed favoring track cost Chicago Six - a stalker at his best - this year. "I hope [the track's] even Saturday," said Smith. "Just give everybody a shot."

McMahon was loose on an easy lead when he narrowly held off Chicago Six in the one-mile Sportsman's BC, but that scenario won't play out again. There's plenty of speed in the nine-furlong NJC Handicap, and McMahon might be third fastest after Ubiquity, who has drawn the rail, and Hail the Chief, who breaks from post seven.

"He loves to be on the lead," said Niall O'Callaghan, Hail the Chief's trainer.

Figure Hail the Chief comes out running to mitigate the effects of an outside post, Ubiquity leaves the gate quickly to maintain his inside position, and McMahon hounds those two all the way around the track. The recipe could be right for yet another Chicago Six revival.

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