06/23/2005 12:00AM

Fort Prado: Block's new hot one

Benoit & Associates
Fort Prado, winning the open-company Mister Gus, faces statebreds in the Black Tie Affair.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Dave Block caught the horse racing bug years ago, and spread it throughout his nuclear family. His son, Chris, developed a full-blown case of Thoroughbred fever, and it has been through his roll as trainer that the Blocks have become a consistent player in Illinois racing.

This year, they might have the best horse in the best race here Saturday, when Arlington hosts the six-stakes Prairie State Festival for Illinois-breds. His name is , and after showing signs last year at age 3, Fort Prado blossomed this season. He has won his first two starts of the year, displaying a useful cruising speed and a flashy turn of foot, and seems primed for a matchup Saturday with Home of Stars, who also has peaked in 2005.

But these two haven't scared away the competition. Nine others were entered in their race, the Black Tie Affair Handicap, one of two grass stakes and the second-to-last stakes race on Arlington's 10-race card. The sequence winds up with the Springfield, a pair of six-furlong sprints - including a strong edition of the White Oak - a dirt mile for 3-year-old fillies, and the Lincoln Heritage, the female version of the Black Tie Affair.

Fort Prado's emergence comes shortly after the fall of the Block turf star Mystery Giver, who went down with a serious injury in the 2004 Arlington Million. But the two horses, though both homebreds, are much different. Mystery Giver was less the handy athlete, with a longer, more sustained run than Fort Prado. He also was quirky out on the racetrack and prone to worrying his trainer with his picky eating habits.

"Fort Prado is much more straightforward," said Chris Block. "Mystery, he was always more of a project - difficult to gallop, not always easy to breeze. This guy's fine."

Fort Prado - who in last fall's Storm Cat here came within a length of Good Reward, winner of this year's Grade 1 Manhattan - beat a decent field of open-company horses last out in the Mister Gus Stakes, slipping through traffic with a strong late run. He will need good luck again Saturday to find room in a bulky field, and Home of Stars should be coming.

, the 10-year-old warrior Magic Doe, and upset candidate Act of War. Act of War's trainer, Greg Geier, already has sent out two longshots to turf wins this meet.