05/23/2003 11:00PM

'Dearly' will need his best off layoff

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Two seasons ago Al's Dearly Bred won a rich Claiming Crown race, but last year may have been even better. Al's Dearly Bred won three times and looked good even when he lost, finishing third in the Sea O' Erin and third in the Steinlen, Arlington races worth at least $100,000.

Good at 4 and better at 5, Al's Dearly Bred starts his 6-year-old season in the $45,000 Mister Gus Stakes on Monday at Arlington. The Mister Gus, at one mile on grass, drew a highly competitive field of 11, and Al's Dearly Bred must return ready from a six-month layoff to win it.

And there is conflicting information on that front. Al's Dearly Bred won his first two starts of 2002, the first a Canterbury Park optional claimer by six lengths and the second the Brooks Fields there. Now, he's a year older - and significantly bigger.

"He's a big, heavy horse, and he's turning into kind of a pork chop," said Hugh Robertson, who trains Al's Dearly Bred for owner John Castro. Still, Robertson said, "These old turf horses don't take that much to get going." And Al's Dearly Bred had a solid 6 1/2-furlong stamina work here a week ago.

Recency is no issue for Holy Conflict, who raced five weeks ago at Keeneland and came within 1 1/4 lengths of Honor in War, who won the Grade 2 Woodford Reserve in his next start. Holy Conflict has turned in five straight good efforts, and if he's failed to win in 11 starts at Arlington, it's not from having struggled here. Time and time again, Holy Conflict has encountered bad luck racing on this course, finishing third here five times and second once.

Like Al's Dearly Bred, Holy Conflict is 6, and these horses are spring chickens compared to the venerable Reno Rumble. And while the Arlington turf has been Holy Conflict's house of horrors, it's been Reno Rumble's path to fortune.

Now 9, Reno Rumble has made 22 starts here and won 10 of them, earning almost $350,000. Take him off this course, and he's won three of 30 starts. Reno Rumble's only race this year, an allowance April 15 at Tampa, produced nothing, but this gelding took his time to get going last season, too.

Not to be counted out are Major Omansky, Flamin' Jolie, and Ivan Jay Perry, all of whom have run well at Arlington. But it will take more than a typical performance from any one of these horses to win if Al's Dearly Bred and Holy Conflict run the way they can.