05/18/2004 11:00PM

Crown Pacific did it once - can he win again?

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Suddenly, Crown Pacific found himself somewhere nobody in a long time had expected him to be: in front.

It was a maiden grass race April 24 at Hawthorne, and if anything, Crown Pacific looked like an underlay at the odds of 23-1. Owned by Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque, the New Orleanians of Risen Star fame, Crown Pacific had cost $175,000 at auction, and he was looking like a total bust. Crown Pacific lost to open maidens; he lost to maiden claimers priced as low as $10,000; he lost on turf and on dirt, going long and short, and on April 4 he had lost a bottom-level maiden sprint by more than 22 lengths.

Then came a demonstration of horse racing's essence - namely, the animal itself. These are strange creatures. They live by habit but are liable to do anything at any time. What Crown Pacific did was finally to put some effort into a race. He won by three-quarters of a length, paying $49.20.

Crown Pacific returns in Arlington's eighth race Friday, an entry-level turf allowance. And who can say now what he will do?

It is not like there are superstars in this race, carded for nine furlongs on grass but liable to be rained onto the main track. Taconic might be favored, and his recent win over a sloppy Lone Star track would make Taconic look especially good on a wet main track.

Primm and Lods won their maidens on grass, but neither is superior to the level of competition here. King of Chicago lost a Hawthorne race at this class level by only a head, but he is liable to regress off that effort.

Sammieso Sah was entered dirt only; Astor Street and Big Dividend are looking for a surface switch. And we are back around again to Crown Pacific. Roussel's assistant and current head trainer, Lara Van Deren, agonized for more than a year trying to get this horse to win. When he finally did, she was as surprised as anyone. Anything is possible now.

Lanerie leaves, and Thornton is still hurt

Jockey news from Arlington Park this week has more to do with absence than presence. Corey Lanerie, who had planned to spend his summer here, left abruptly Monday morning and has shifted his tack to Louisiana Downs. Meanwhile, Timothy Thornton, the 17-year-old apprentice rider who finished up strongly at the National Jockey Club at Hawthorne meet, remains sidelined by an injured wrist. His agent, Chuck Del Preto, said Wednesday that Thornton is a week to 10 days away from a return.

"You wouldn't want him to rush back," said Del Preto.

Thornton was injured in a fall late in the Hawthorne meet. His apprentice allowance is scheduled to end in early July, but Del Preto said Thornton will seek an extension for time lost to this injury and for canceled programs this past winter at Aqueduct.

Lanerie's agent, Rick Mocklin, said he and Lanerie drove to Louisiana Downs early this week in a sudden change of plans. In years past, Lanerie spent late spring and early summer at Lone Star Park. This season, he made plans to ride the entire Arlington meet, but Mocklin said Lanerie's business had started off slowly, and feared it wouldn't pick up.

"You've got to go where your business is," Mocklin said Wednesday morning. "A lot of the guys that were using us at Fair Grounds said they'd put us on horses [at Louisiana Downs], and they are. I think Louisiana should be our circuit year-round."

Partway through Arlington's Wednesday card, Cruz Contreras, the apprentice who led the Hawthorne standings, and Eddie Razo were tied with five wins.

Apt to Be, Wiggins prepare for Hanshin

Trainer Chris Block deemed Apt to Be a probable starter in the May 29 Hanshin Handicap an hour after the horse posted a strong work Wednesday morning at Arlington. At daybreak, Wiggins, one of Apt to Be's competitors in the Grade 3 Hanshin, worked five furlongs in his final major exercise for the race.

Jockey Eddie Razo has ridden both horses in recent races: He worked Wiggins on Wednesday morning and will ride him in the Hanshin. Carlos Marquez Jr. breezed Apt to Be and has picked up the mount on him.

Apt to Be won the Hanshin last season, but Block fears the horse is a race away from his best. This work should help. Apt to Be was relaxed on his run up the backstretch, finishing up well, and his six-furlong time of 1:12.40 was a full three seconds better than the next-fastest work at the distance.

Wiggins, a winner of a Prairie Meadows allowance race in his last start, was timed in a quick 1:00.40 for five furlongs.

"Eddie said he could have gone in 58 if he'd wanted him to," trainer Tony Granitz said.