09/10/2007 11:00PM

Gelding keeps improving, even at 8

EmailETOBICOKE, Ontario - Remarkably, Le Cinquieme Essai seems to still be improving at age 8. But can he come up with the race of his career in the Grade 1, $1 million Woodbine Mile here Sunday?

Le Cinquieme Essai has made 28 of his 29 career starts at home in Canada, where he has been competitive with some solid shippers, as witnessed last year by his nose loss to Remarkable News in the Grade 3 Connaught Cup and his victory over the subsequent Woodbine Mile winner, Becrux, in the Grade 2 Play the King. On the road, Le Cinquieme Essai has only a one-race resume, a fast-closing second in last summer's Sea O'Erin at Arlington Park.

"He does seem to be improving," said Paul Nielsen, who trains Le Cinquieme Essai for owner/breeder Bill Scott. "He's really turned into a professional racehorse. I keep thinking this is his last year, but you never know."

Le Cinquieme Essai is an Ontario-bred gelding by the top turf miler Fastness out of Words of Royalty, a Scott homebred whom Nielsen sent out to win 3 of 19 starts and $75,064. Le Cinquieme Essai did not impress Nielsen right off the bat.

"I had him right from his 2-year-old season," said Nielsen. "At first I never thought that much of him, to be honest - he was just a horse."

Le Cinquieme Essai rose in Nielsen's estimation, however, when he finished a close fourth in his debut at Fort Erie and then concluded his two-start juvenile campaign with a second-place finish here.

The following summer, Le Cinquieme Essai realized that promise by capping a three-race win streak with a victory in Fort Erie's 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales, the second leg of the Triple Crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds.

In the second win of his streak, Le Cinquieme Essai had foreshadowed his future forte with a 5 1/4-length win in a first-level allowance here at one mile on turf.

"I'd thought he would be good over the turf because of his family, and watching his action," said Nielsen.

Le Cinquieme Essai closed out his 3-year-old campaign with two one-mile turf appearances in races for 3-year-olds and upward, winning a third-level optional claimer and then finishing a close fifth in the Labeeb, an overnight stakes.

His record earned him a Sovereign Award in his division, which lacked a true standout.

Le Cinquieme Essai found the going tough when he returned to Woodbine the following spring as a 4-year-old but began to show improvement at age 5 in 2004, winning a pair of listed stakes, one at Fort Erie and one at Woodbine. He continued to make progress in 2005 - now campaigning exclusively on turf - winning the Grade 3 Connaught Cup, finishing second in the Play the King, and coming in third in the Woodbine Mile behind the eventual Eclipse Award winner, Leroidesanimaux.

Whether Le Cinquieme Essai could have defeated Becrux and won the Woodbine Mile last year is a question that will remain unanswered. Following his victory over Becrux in the Play the King, Le Cinquieme Essai came up with a suspensory problem.

"It wasn't major," said Nielsen. "But it could have been, if we continued to run him, so we gave him the time off.

Le Cinquieme Essai resumed his training at Payson Park in Florida, but, said Nielsen, "the track was really deep there this year, and I had to be really patient."

Le Cinquieme Essai returned from an 11-month layoff this summer and finished third in the restricted Ontario Jockey Club before winning his second straight Play the King.

"I couldn't have trained him to where I really wanted him to be for his first race back," said Nielsen. "The race did more than I could have done for him. In the Play the King, he was back to his old form. He's doing well. Everything's going to schedule."

Whatever may transpire in the Woodbine Mile, Le Cinquieme Essai will remain the undisputed star in the Nielsen stratosphere.

"It's not only that he's the best horse I've ever had," said the 50-year-old Nielsen. "When you spend this much time with these animals, they just become a part of you. He's gone with me to Payson Park every winter. He's never been out of my barn.

"When we get here every morning, at 5 a.m., he's waiting for us. He's really a big part of the family."

That family includes Nielsen's wife and assistant, Karen, who gallops and often works Le Cinquieme Essai, and jockey Steven Bahen, who has ridden the gelding in his last 16 races.

"Steven does a good job of nursing him along," said Nielsen. "There's a fine line between fighting him and letting him run along. He's bull-headed. He's a very strong-willed horse."

Nielsen also acknowledges the various grooms and hotwalkers who have been with Le Cinquieme Essai through the years.

"It's been a team effort," said Nielsen. "It's taken a lot of hard work and dedication to keep him healthy and keep him on form."