09/03/2004 12:00AM

Delicatessa at least has the class


CHICAGO - The key to Sunday's $50,000 Claire Marine Stakes at Arlington is finding the horse best suited to the race's conditions, 1 1/2 miles on turf.

And good luck with that.

The Claire Marine, for fillies and mares, drew a field of eight, and the group collectively has made just three starts at 12 furlongs. New Dreams has two of them, and even won a 1 1/2- mile grass race in Brazil. But things are not going to be that simple.

New Dreams, a South American import trained by Ken McPeek, seemed like a grass horse before being exported from her native land, but since coming to the U.S., New Dreams has gone winless in four turf starts, failing even to get close in third-level allowance company. Her form began turning around late this spring, but only with a switch to dirt racing, and she might be overbet Sunday.

What's striking about the rest of the field is its mediocrity: Four of the horses have run for claiming tags, while Tamarack Bay comes off a second-level allowance win, and Kris Star just won an entry-level allowance.

That leaves Delicatessa, who on quality alone gets the nod in the Claire Marine. Delicatessa, from the Charlie Livesay barn, shows no races in her form beyond nine furlongs, nor is she especially bred along the lines of a marathon grass horse. But she won the $75,000 Estrapade over this course last season, and had little chance last out in the Grade 3 Modesty when racing too far behind a false pace. At this longer distance, Delicatessa will be much closer to the pace, and she need not produce a furious finish to notch her first win of the year.

Contreras returns to Mexico

Cruz Contreras, who won the riding title last spring at Hawthorne, has left Chicago and returned to his home in the Jalisco state of Mexico. Contreras rode here last weekend, but abruptly left town, according to his former agent, Tom Morgan.

Morgan does not expect Contreras, who has 36 wins at the meet, to return.

"Saturday, he was on a winner and two seconds," Morgan said. "He came to me and said, 'That's it, I got to go to Mexico.' "

Morgan said Contreras apparently returned to Mexico with the intention of investing in fighting chickens.

Contreras lost his apprentice allowance in June, and struggled to win races after that, his efforts hampered by a rash of suspensions that cost Contreras 14 days.

"He was probably a little disappointed with all the DQ's," said Morgan.

Contreras began riding at Arlington last summer, but left to clear up immigration issues. He returned in the fall, and had a strong National Jockey Club at Hawthorne meet this past winter and spring.

Morgan, a longtime agent here, is currently without a rider.

Summer Mis finds soft spot

The graded stakes winner Summer Mis heads a field of seven entered for Monday's $50,000 Safely Kept Handicap, a six-furlong dirt race. The race marks a significant class drop for Summer Mis, who finished a close fifth Aug. 6 in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss at Saratoga.

Summer Mis was lucky to run that well. After breaking on top in the Honorable Miss, Summer Mis stumbled for no apparent reason several strides into the race.

"She went right down on her nose, and that hurt our chances for the end of the race," said trainer Tony Mitchell.

Summer Mis has a good chance to win the Safely Kept, but the race is a prep for a graded stakes in October. Mitchell said Summer Mis would either run in the Thoroughbred Club of America at Keeneland - a race she won last year - or the Floral Park at Belmont.

Eddie Razo rides Summer Mis on Monday, replacing her regular rider, Larry Sterling. Mitchell complimented Sterling for pulling Summer Mis together after her trouble at Saratoga, and declined to comment on the rider change.

"That's in-house," Mitchell said.

Two winners earn stakes shot

Wednesday's races may have offered a glimpse of two future stakes horses. Just See James, an Illinois-bred sprinter, impressively won a statebred second-level allowance race, running six furlongs in 1:09.80, while Cloudy's Knight probably earned a slot in the Kentucky Cup Turf with a strong third-level turf allowance victory.

Just See James won for the second straight time, beating a strong field of Illinois-breds with a powerful rail rally.

"He overcame a bad post," said trainer Joe McKellar. "That definitely was his best race so far."

Just See James has only sprinted so far, but McKellar believes the 3-year-old gelding will be able to stretch out in distance. McKellar will give him a chance to do so at the Hawthorne meet this fall.

Cloudy's Knight won for the fourth time in nine turf starts, winning a nine-furlong grass race with a powerful late kick. His trainer, Frank Kirby, thinks that race was at the short end of Cloudy's Knight's distance spectrum, and looks forward to running him longer.

"He's a little aggressive, and if he'll rate just a little better, I think he has an unlimited future," said Kirby.

The Kentucky Cup Turf, at Kentucky Downs, is run over 1 1/2 miles. Kirby could have two horses for the race, depending on how Sharbayan performed in an overnight stakes here Saturday.

Trainer race tightens

Just as Steve Asmussen took the lead in the Arlington trainer standings he began serving a 15-day suspension Wednesday. The Asmussen horses, now running for assistant Toby Sheets, will revert to his name on Sept. 15, but the Arlington meet ends just days later. Through Thursday, Kirby and Asmussen were tied with 26 wins each. Chris Block has 23 wins and Tom Amoss 22, so the title remains up for grabs.