08/16/2001 12:00AM

A dozen angles to play in Secretariat


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Pick a horse. Any horse.

That's pretty much the spectrum of opportunity that awaits horseplayers in an incredibly contentious renewal of the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park.

The Secretariat is such a wide-open affair that the favorite in the 12-horse field figures to be no lower than 7-2 or 4-1.

"I took a look at the past performances, and it didn't take long to see how tough this race was," said Tom Skiffington, who trains one of the logical favorites in Package Store. "It is extremely competitive."

As much as any of the 3-year-olds in the 1 1/4-mile race, Package Store embodies the type who figures right in the thick of things. After Skiffington took over the colt's training this spring, the trainer ran him in the June 16 Hill Prince, in which Package Store finished a sharp second. Then came another close runner-up finish in the July 15 Lexington.

"I'm not the kind of guy who throws a horse into a stakes right away," said Skiffington. "That's how impressed I was with him. This obviously is a tough race, but I think my colt belongs."

The race-shape of the Secretariat appears somewhat predictable. While locally based Fan Club's Mister, upset winner of the American Derby here last month, could go to the lead, a slew of chasers should be poised to pounce, meaning positioning will be crucial.A sizable group of stalkers could include Package Store and two other accomplished colts from the East, Sharp Performance and Navesink.

Also likely to loom a major factor from the start is the Juddmonte Farms colt, Mizzen Mast, who has been highly touted by the European contingent in Chicago this week. Mizzen Mast, who will be turned over to Bobby Frankel after this race, already has proven his class, having finished second in a Group 1 race at Longchamp in his last start.

The stretch-running contingent is led by Startac, who returns to his strength for trainer Simon Bray. After four terrific turf tries to begin his career, Startac was moved to the dirt this spring in attempt to make the Kentucky Derby, in which he ultimately finished 10th. The Secretariat marks his comeback race.

Other late-runners include Strut the Stage, a Sam-Son Farms colt who has won all three of his starts this year; Sligo Bay, winner of the Cinema Handicap in California before disappointing in the American Derby; and Aldwych, an English colt who has been consistent when keeping solid company.

Further depth can be attributed to Royal Spy, the beaten favorite in the American Derby; Snowstorm, another British invader; and Saint Damien, a talented colt trained by Ken McPeek.

The Secretariat was inaugurated in 1974, the year after Big Red made an appearance at Arlington. Two winners of the Secretariat have gone on to win the Arlington Million: Awad, who pulled his double in 1993 and 1995, and Marlin (1996-97).