07/28/2005 11:00PM

Cole Express heads juvenile sprint stakes


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - First-level allowance races for early-summer 2-year-olds are these days called stakes races, and so it is that seven horses were entered in Sunday's Honest Pleasure Stakes at Arlington Park.

None of them has more than one win, and one, Strong Contender, hasn't even raced yet. Which is not to say the 5 1/2-furlong, $45,000 Honest Pleasure, the first local step along the way to the Arlington-Washington Futurity, lacks talent. Start with Cole Express, who ran 4 1/2 furlongs here June 8 in 51.74 seconds, as fast as any horse in recent years, winning his debut by four lengths and earning a 76 Beyer. A trip to Churchill Downs for the July 10 Bashford Manor was plotted, but just before he was to ship to Kentucky, Cole Express caught a little bug and stayed home.

"It turned out to be nothing major," said trainer Mike Puhich. "It didn't cost us two days training. To be honest, it might've been a blessing in disguise, because anytime you can take a little extra time with 2-year-olds, it can be a good thing."

Cole Express, an In Excess colt owned by the G Five Stable, showed controlled speed in his debut, turning in the most impressive performance by a 2-year-old here so far this summer. He has breezed twice since the minor illness early this month, and drew well in post 7.

"We're looking at it as a test against other winners to see what we've got," Puhich said.

If the test comes, it figures to come from Sorcerer's Stone, or perhaps Strong Contender. Sorcerer's Stone ships in from Kentucky for trainer Pat Byrne having also won his career debut in a quick time, going 51.88 seconds for 4 1/2 furlongs and earning a 73 Beyer on July 3 at Churchill. Sorcerer's Stone stalked and came up the rail, and, somewhat unusually, adds blinkers after a victory.

The trainer John Ward also is turning to the unorthodox, starting off Strong Contender - purchased by John Oxley for $800,000 at a 2-year-old sale in April - against winners instead of maidens.

"It's a timing thing with him," Ward's Arlington assistant, Sally Schu, said Friday. "We entered him in an extra maiden race yesterday, and it didn't go. There's just a lot of stakes races in the fall, so [Ward] wants to get him started. He's worked really well, and we'll see what we got, anyway, but he's definitely going to want more distance."

Full field seen for Million

Chicago's best day of racing, the Aug. 14 Arlington Million program, could bring out the biggest Million field since 1994 with a full gate of 14 horses possible.

The shape of the Million will become more clear next week when a $5,000 pre-entry fee is due midnight Friday, Aug. 5, but if the race were drawn today, it probably would go with a full gate for the seventh time in its history.

In fact, Million XXIII is shaping up as the best edition in years, headed by champion turf horse Kitten's Joy and bolstered by the news that multiple Grade 1 winner Leroidesanimaux is scheduled to make his first start since early March in the race. Also under consideration for is the Aidan O'Brien-trained Powerscourt, who finished first in last year's race but was disqualified to fourth for interference. O'Brien has told Arlington racing officials that he intends to have one horse for each of the day's three Grade 1 races. If not Powerscourt, O'Brien could send Ace or Solskjaer.

Also expected for the Million are Cool Conductor, Fourty Niners Son, Good Reward, Prince Arch, Rochester, Sweet Return, and Whilly - or, if you like, just about every top-class grass horse in the country save Better Talk Now, who is running instead in the Sword Dancer at Saratoga. Four other European shippers are possible for the Million.

Megahertz and Wend top the list of Beverly D. possibles, with Americans Halo Ola, Miss Terrible, and Spring Season also expected. Europeans considered most likely are Mona Lisa and Sundrop.

English Channel heads the Secretariat field, with Cosmic Kris, the O'Brien-trained Grand Central, Gun Salute, Merger, Purim, Rey De Cafe, and Rush Bay also possible.

Stidham looking to spot juvenile fillies

Saturday's 2-year-old filly stakes, the Silver Maiden, drew only three entries and was scrapped. The cancellation couldn't have disappointed anyone more than trainer Mike Stidham, who entered two of the three horses, and now must find an alternative spot for both Party Planner and Honey Gold.

Party Planner won her debut in a five-furlong sprint earlier this month and has the makings of a nice horse. She was flattered when Lizzy's Township, third in Party Planner's maiden win, returned with a sharp score last weekend. Lizzy's Township, in fact, is in the process of being sold - reportedly to West Coast interests - pending a veterinary examination. As for Party Planner, she is likely to await the Top Flight, an overnight stakes prep for the Arlington-Washington Lassie.

"I don't really want to go shipping her all over the country now," Stidham said.

Shipping, however, is in the works for Devilment, the Stidham-trained winner of the Round Table Stakes here. With Afleet Alex coming out of next weekend's Haskell Invitational, Devilment will be considered for that race, Stidham said, though a start the following weekend in the West Virginia Derby remains a possibility.

The West Virginia Derby will be the next start for Lone Star Derby winner Southern Africa, his trainer Mike Puhich said.