06/16/2010 11:00PM

Festival card draws large, competitive fields


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The foal crop in Illinois has been dropping steadily for years. One wouldn't know it from the six Illinois-bred stakes races comprising the Prairie State Festival on Saturday at Arlington Park.

The shortest of the six $100,000 stakes has eight horses, the largest a massive field of 14, and pretty much all the stakes, which span races 6-11, look competitive and bettable.

That includes the first stakes of the afternoon, the Black Tie Affair for older males at 1 1/16 miles on turf. Free Fighter exits a two-length victory in the Grade 3 Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs but is far from a certain thing in the shorter Black Tie Affair.

"He's better at a mile and a quarter on up, there's no doubt about it," trainer Chris Block said. "This is a race that we're using to step toward others, and we think he'll be very competitive in there."

Perfectly suited to the Black Tie Affair's distance is Princeville Condo, who comes off a strong showing in the Illinois Owners Stakes on May 15, his first start since having throat surgery to correct a breathing problem. In seven Arlington grass races, Princeville Condo has four wins, two seconds, and a third, and he looks like the horse to beat in the Black Tie Affair. Gentleman Chester also rates a decent chance.

Block has three horses entered in the White Oak Handicap for male sprinters, including likely favorite Shrewd Operator. To win the White Oak, Shrewd Operator might only need to get out of the starting gate -- something he has not done in his last two Illinois-bred stakes starts. Shrewd Operator hopped at the start of the Molaro Handicap on April 24 -- his most recent race -- rushed up to the lead, and faded to sixth. In the Lightning Jet last fall, he was away awkwardly and last and never got involved.

"The key to him is he keeps his composure in the gate," Block said. "He doesn't necessarily get worked up; he just has a tendency to lose concentration when he gets in there. It was frustrating the last start -- no question."

Shrewd Operator has amassed a 4-1-0 record from five Arlington main-track starts and has never raced in the White Oak. Block's other two for the race are Amazing Results, who hasn't raced since last July 18 because of foot problems but has been training well for his comeback; and Lalo's Baby Bear, who is unproven in stakes. Also entered in a deep field are 2009 White Oak winner River Bear and win threats Mighty Rule and Wildeydsouthernboy.

Trainer Christine Janks has 13 horses entered on Saturday's card, but none more promising than Big Looie, one of nine 3-year-olds in the one-mile Springfield Stakes. Big Looie's three wins have come at six furlongs, but Janks believes the gelding, by Military, can get a one-turn mile.

"I've never had a horse that works so easily in hand," Janks said. "He just seems to keep going. I may get a surprise, but he gives every indication that the mile's not going to be a problem."

Big Looie is fast into stride and must avoid a speed duel with equally quick Royal Express. Closers Seguro and Slewzoom both look good enough to win, and 10-1 morning-line shot Devient Behavior merits respect.

Apple Martini won the Lincoln Heritage for turf fillies in 2009 but faces a tougher task Saturday, since Peyote Patty and Cumulonimble did not participate in last year's race. Cumulonimble drew poorly in post 14 but has the talent to overcome the bad draw. Peyote Patty has a much better draw, and while perhaps not quite as talented as Cumulonimble, she was an impressive restricted-stakes winner on the Arlington course last summer in her lone career turf start.

In Nicks and Cruise, Janks has two win threats in the Isaac Murphy for female sprinters on the main track. The two horses seem about equal in ability, but Cruise has never beaten Nicks in several match-ups.

"I keep liking Cruise, and she keeps having bad luck and Nicks beats her," Janks said.

Nicks won this race in 2009 and should get a clean trip from an outside draw. Ripe Tomato and Secret Kin also could factor.

And finally, the brain-scrambler on the card: The Purple Violet for 3-year-old fillies at one mile. If Wild Hope were the same horse on Polytrack as she is on dirt, she'd be a strong favorite to capture the Purple Violet, but Wild Hope appeared to struggle in her synthetic-track debut here May 15. It is not a wild stretch to say that any one of the 12 fillies entered could wind up in the winner's circle.