04/17/2003 12:00AM

Colorful Tour comes back quick

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Colorful Tour left Chicago in January with something to prove. Having displayed his superiority over fellow Illinois-breds, it was time to see whether he had the talent to take his game to the next level, specifically in graded stakes. And he did.

Following a spring at Oaklawn that included two Grade 3 wins, Colorful Tour on Saturday returns to Chicago for Hawthorne's Grade 3, $250,000 National Jockey Club Handicap at 1 1/8 miles.

A homebred from trainer Noel Hickey's Irish Acres Farm, Colorful Tour took advantage of plentiful options for older horses at Oaklawn, reeling off three straight wins to start the meet, including the Essex and Razorback handicaps, both Grade 3 stakes.

For Colorful Tour's final race at Oaklawn, Hickey chose the Grade 3 Fifth Season on April 9 rather than face Medaglia d'Oro in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap. Things didn't quite work out, as Patton's Victory set a slow pace and held off Colorful Tour's late charge by a length. Hickey said after the Fifth Season that the race had taken very little out of his colt, and he had little reluctance bringing Colorful Tour back on 10 days' rest for the NJC. Colorful Tour will have a new rider on Saturday, Curt Bourque.

Colorful Tour is a horse for the course at Hawthorne, with four wins and a second from five starts there. But more importantly, there should be no repeat of the slow pace that hindered his rally in the Fifth Season.

Keats, trained by Niall O'Callaghan, who won this race with Hail the Chief in 2002, is the primary speed in Saturday's field. Keats contributed to the suicidal fractions in the 2001 Kentucky Derby that produced the second fastest final time in Derby history. While he's been able to win only in allowance company since his 3-year-old season, Keats has earned competitive Beyers in races like the Donn and New Orleans handicaps. However, his 0-for-4 record at nine furlongs makes him suspect to lead gate to wire.

Mc Mahon, winner of the 2002 Sportsman's Breeders' Cup, and minor stakes winner Fight for Ally, who is undefeated at Hawthorne, have both shown early speed in their recent races and could keep Keats honest.

Like Colorful Tour, Regency Park figures to benefit from a fast pace. A narrowly beaten second in an overnight stakes at Gulfstream last out, Regency Park earned his biggest Beyer, a 103, for his runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Discovery at Aqueduct last fall.