10/15/2003 11:00PM

Is French Charmer fit?

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French Charmer stands out Saturday in the $100,000 Flying Pidgeon Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile grass race at Calder. But his trainer, Harry Benson, has been around too long not to worry.

Benson and French Charmer's principle owner, Joseph Sweedler, go back more than 50 years in the horse business. "We started out with a $2,500 claimer, and this summer [Sweedler] has won five stakes," Benson said Thursday afternoon.

Sweedler is out to buy high-end racehorses, and Benson found him one last fall in French Charmer, who has since won five times in eight races, including his last three in a row. On Aug. 2, he convincingly beat the good horse Rock Slide in a $144,000 stake at Laurel, but while running hard over boggy going, French Charmer pulled a muscle.

"Pulled muscles aren't a big thing if you give them time," Benson said. That is what he did with French Charmer, but now Benson worries his horse isn't tight enough.

"I'm from the old school," Benson said. "I like to make sure they're good and fit going into the race. My whole question this time is whether he's fit enough. I worked him a mile [in 1:45.60] the other day, but I wanted him to go a little faster than he did. He had a new exercise rider up, and he didn't know the horse.

"Maybe I'm worrying over nothing," Benson said. "I blew him out today, and he went really well."

Indeed, Benson seems to know how to get his horse ready. Twice he has brought French Charmer, Saturday's 120-pound highweight, back from layoffs to win, and there is little doubt that at something close to his best, and with a favorable trip under Chris DeCarlo, French Charmer beats his 10 rivals Saturday.

Several of the others - good horses like Stormy Roman, Mr. Livingston, and Serial Bride - also exit layoffs, and the challenge in playing this race is to weigh ability against recency. Lost Appeal, Military Man, Drink a Toast, and True Love's Secret all scored clear victories in their most recent start, but all of them may be limited, either by quality or distance.

The signs point to Benson and French Charmer, who may use the Flying Pidgeon as a springboard to a graded-stakes campaign this winter at Gulfstream.

"He's a nice horse," Benson said. "I'm going to keep going with him and find the easiest spots until we run out of them."