10/21/2004 12:00AM

Crystal Castle good fit for Nearctic


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - The Nearctic Handicap, a six-furlong turf race that formerly was run on Queen's Plate Day, was shifted to Canadian International Day this year in the hopes of achieving a higher profile.

The plan appears to have borne some fruit as Crystal Castle, trained by Darrell Vienna and owned by Herrick Racing, has checked in from California to contest Sunday's Grade 2, $250,000 Nearctic at Woodbine.

The Nearctic's former slot also was okay with Vienna and the Herrick outfit as their Nuclear Debate contested the last two runnings, winning in 2002 and finishing third last year.

Nuclear Debate, like Crystal Castle, was trained in France by John Hammond and was a private purchase at age 6.

While Nuclear Debate's European form seemed stronger, Crystal Castle came within a head of winning the Group 1 Golden Jubilee at Ascot this June and is a serious threat here in his North American debut.

"Nuclear Debate was retired last year and they were looking for a similar horse," said Scott Chaney, assistant trainer to Vienna, who joined Crystal Castle here Thursday morning.

"He's a 6-year-old gelding, and seemed to have the form we were looking for. We bought him with this race in mind."

The fact that Crystal Castle is a son of Gilded Time, who won the 1992 Breeders' Cup Juvenile for Vienna, added to his attractiveness.

"We've had him about a month and a half," said Chaney. "He came over in great shape."

David Flores will be traveling in for the mount on Crystal Castle, who will be the 118-pound highweight in the Nearctic.

"He worked the horse at Santa Anita," said Chaney. "He was very happy with him."

Flores rode Nuclear Debate to his Nearctic win here.

Mubtaker can challenge favorite

The fact that Mubtaker checked in for the Canadian International at the same time as Sulamani has allowed him to keep a fairly low profile here.

But that has pretty much been the story of Mubtaker's career, as the lightly raced 7-year-old horse generally has gone about his business beneath the radar, with one notable exception.

That came in the 2003 running of the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, where Mubtaker was beaten just three-quarters of a length as the runner-up to the sensational Dalakhani, with subsequent Breeders' Cup Turf dead-heat winner High Chaparral another five lengths back in third.

As a relatively fresh runner making just the third start of his current campaign, the highly consistent Mubtaker merits serious consideration here Sunday.

Mubtaker, owned by Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, has won nine times and finished out of the money just once in his 19 career races, that aberration occurring when he made his last start in the Group 1 Grosser Preis von Baden in Germany on Sept. 5.

"The ground out there was gluey; he really didn't like it," said Patrick MacEwan, an assistant to Mubtaker's trainer, Marcus Tregoning. "And it was just his second run after a rest."

Mubtaker made his first start since last October's Arc in Newbury's Group 2 Geoffrey Freer Stakes on Aug. 14, winning that about 1 5/8-mile turf race for the third consecutive year.

Newbury is a left-handed course, and MacEwan thinks the Woodbine layout also will suit Mubtaker.

"It's a nice galloping track," said MacEwan. "He can sit anywhere; it depends on how the race is run. He's an easy horse to ride."

Richard Hills, the stable rider for Sheikh Hamdan, won last Saturday's Group 1 Champion Stakes at Newmarket aboard Haafhd and won the 2001 Canadian International aboard Mutamam.

Hot trio strikes again

Millfleet ($13.50) awaited room exiting the turn before drawing off in the stretch to take the $132,500 Deputy Minister Stakes here Wednesday night.

It was the second stakes victory in five days for owner Margaret Squires, trainer Hugo Dittfach, and jockey Jill Scharfstein, who also teamed up to take last Saturday's Durham Cup Handicap with Millfleet's half-brother Norfolk Knight.

Norfolk Knight's full-brother Artic Squire captured the 1999 Deputy Minister for Squires and Dittfach.

Willie Dunn led the way in Wednesday's seven-furlong sprint for Ontario-sired 3-year-olds, with even-money favorite Dashing Admiral running in close proximity. Millfleet moved into contention along the rail on the turn, and kicked clear after finding room at the eighth pole.

Millfleet won by 5 1/4 lengths and banked $79,500 in his first stakes triumph. Dashing Admiral wound up second, and Willie Dunn salvaged third in the eight-horse field.

"I had a lot of horse going around the turn," said Scharfstein. "I had to steady him for a second, but as soon as he got clear, he just exploded."

- additional reporting by Ron Gierkink