05/10/2007 11:00PM

Distorted Groom aims to keep form

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – It’s a sign of how strong entries have been in the early stages of this Arlington Park meet that a second-level allowance race not only filled, it attracted enough entries to be split into two divisions.

Those two six-furlong races, the seventh and the ninth, wind up co-featured on a 10-race Sunday program here, and both look competitive.

Race 7 has a field of seven, and Distorted Groom would be difficult to beat if his Hawthorne dirt form carries over to Arlington’s Polytrack – a significant “if.” Distorted Groom is a four-time winner who actually captured a third-level allowance race during the Hawthorne meet before finishing second in a fourth-level allowance race, and second in the Chicagoland Handicap for Illinois-bred sprinters. It’s the fact that Distorted Groom is Illinois-bred that allows him into Sunday’s race; his wins in statebred-restricted spots don’t count against his allowance conditions here.

But there’s the sense that after four good races on the other side of Chicagoland, Distorted Groom might already have peaked. No Fault, in from Kentucky for trainer Paul McGee, looks like an alternative, but has won only twice in 18 starts. More lightly raced, and probably with more upside, is Giant Hit, who struggled early in his career, but has won two of his last four races and finished a good second April 22 at Hawthorne in his first start back from a long layoff.

Race 9 appears equally strong, but Clootie’s Croft should win if he runs back to his close second-place finish against a decided track bias in a third-level allowance race April 14 at Keeneland. That was Clootie’s Croft’s first Polytrack start, and he raced over the surface like he’d worked over it – fast.

“Polytrack has helped him, and he had a real bad quarter crack when he came in,” said Neil Pessin, who began training Clootie’s Croft last December at Fair Grounds.

“We spent a long time working on him and getting him fit because he was coming off a layoff and he was pretty overweight,” Pessin said. “He worked good in New Orleans, but he’s worked better on Polytrack.”

He Loves Me Not and Shark look like Clootie’s Croft’s main rivals.

Ocampo rebounds in second week

Fresh off a surprise jockey title at Hawthorne’s winter-sprint meet, Israel Ocampo came to Arlington riding high – and then posted a goose-egg during the first week of the meet. Ocampo’s 21 mounts last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday all lost, but he wasted little time turning things around in week 2, winning Thursday’s first race aboard a 22-race maiden named Shanees. And Ocampo wasn’t done, winning two more while riding in all 10 races.

After his first win Thursday, Ocampo acknowledged being frustrated, but said he simply tried to keep doing the same things that led to success at Hawthorne.

“I try to work hard every day,” said Ocampo, a native of Mexico City who took out a jockey’s license less than two years ago.

Ocampo’s triple moved him into a three-way tie in the Arlington jockey standings, which are topped by Chris Emigh, who narrowly finished second to Ocampo at Hawthorne. Emigh was to miss Saturday’s races here in order to ride Reporting for Duty in the Lone Star Derby.

While Emigh appreciates the fact Steve Asmussen is keeping him on Reporting for Duty – second in the Illinois Derby in his last start – he bemoaned a missed chance to ride in the Kentucky Derby last week. Asmussen said he would have run Reporting for Duty in the Derby had the horse gotten into an oversubscribed field, but Reporting for Duty wound up 21st on a list of Derby hopefuls limited to 20 runners.

“You feel like that could be a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” Emigh said. “I’d never been in that position before.”

Strong work for Connections

Connections apparently likes Arlington Polytrack as much as he likes the stuff at Keeneland. Connections, a 6-year-old gelding, has raced for claiming prices as low as $30,000, but has found a home on synthetic surfaces. He won a third-level Keeneland allowance race by three lengths last October, took the winter off, then won an even higher-class Keeneland allowance by three lengths on April 27.

Trainer Mike Dini said Thursday that Connections was likely to start in the Hanshin Cup here May 26, though a trip to Pimlico for the Maryland Breeders’ Cup Sprint next weekend hadn’t been completely ruled out. He also said he probably would work Connections on Friday at Arlington – and did Connections ever work. His five-furlong time of 58.60 seconds was the fastest by a full second among 47 works at the distance. That was from a trainer who relies more on strong gallops to get a horse to a race and doesn’t like to work horses fast when they do breeze.