05/11/2003 11:00PM

Expensive buy Full Mandate finally coming around

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - When Steve Asmussen took over Full Mandate's training in the middle of last year, he took the long view. Not that there was any other choice.

Full Mandate began his career with trainer Wayne Lukas in 2001, losing in both starts that summer as a 2-year-old. When Asmussen got him the next year, Full Mandate hadn't raced in several months, and Asmussen could barely get the colt out of a strong gallop.

"I didn't think he could run," said Asmussen. "He worked in about 1:06 for five-eighths about the fourth time we breezed him."

Finally, Full Mandate started coming around - and he hasn't stopped moving forward since. Saturday, Full Mandate won the first stakes race of his career when he beat the Grade 3 winner Bonus Pack in the $100,000 Black Tie Affair Handicap. Early in the race, Full Mandate straggled along in last, but Rene Douglas rode him hard all the way around the track and managed to get Full Mandate up by a neck.

"We're crediting the jockey with this one," Asmussen said.

Winning a $100,000 stakes always is nice, but Saturday's victory resonates deeper for Full Mandate. By A.P. Indy out of the good racemare Clear Mandate, Full Mandate commanded a $3.2 million bid when he went through the Keeneland September yearling auction in 2000. At first, it seemed like Padua Stable and Fog City Stable, Full Mandate's owners, had a multi-million dollar albatross on their hands.

That picture looks different now. "He's finally living up to his family," Asmussen said. "The way he kept trying [Saturday] - there's no substitute for pedigree."

The stakes win considerably boosted Full Mandate's residual value, but now what he needs is a victory in a graded stakes.

"That's in his future," said Asmussen. "We'll sit on him for a little bit and point for a major target."

Godolphin 3-year-old wins

Godolphin Racing has had a 2-year-old string at Arlington the last two seasons, but this is the first year any of its horses older than 2 have run at this track. And run, one of them can.

The 3-year-old Absent Friend made his U.S. debut here Friday in the sixth race and emerged from it looking like a colt with promise. The distant trailer early in the one-mile maiden race, Absent Friend started rolling at the half-mile pole, looped the rest of the field on the turn, and ran on to an 8 1/4-length victory. His time of 1:36.65 was excellent for a maiden winner on this surface.

Absent Friend, a $350,000 yearling by Runaway Groom, actually is owned by the Darley Stud Management of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, who is Godolpin's driving force. Trainer Eoin Harty had the colt as a 2-year-old last summer in California, and said that an illness prevented Absent Friend from starting. Absent Friend finally debuted Jan. 2 at Nad Al Sheba in Dubai, finishing a well-beaten third.

"The rider got off him in Dubai and said he was moderate," Harty said. "That was disappointing, because I thought he was better than that."

Harty quickly pointed out that a hectic early pace set up Friday's race for Absent Friend, but acknowledged the colt had run "an impressive race."

"He was fit, that's for sure. He was sitting on a race for a month," Harty said.

Too tough to handicap

For help in Wednesday's featured eighth race, you could turn to speed figures or track variants, but dice or darts may be more appropriate. The first-level allowance, to be run at one mile, drew a field of nine, and it is terribly difficult to separate them.

There are horses coming off turf races and out of conditioned claiming races; they are here from Hawthorne, Keeneland, and Louisiana.

Belvedere Miss lost twice as a short favorite this past winter at Fair Grounds, but she, Best Foot Forward, and Golden Trevally probably deserve to be the favorites. Belvedere Miss ran well on this surface last season, winning her maiden and finishing fourth in a race at this class level, but she lacks speed and needs a solid pace at which to run.

Best Foot Forward backed up badly last out in a Keeneland turf race, but won her maiden two starts back by six lengths on the Fair Grounds dirt. Golden Trevally ran well in her last three main-track starts, but that was early last fall.