06/03/2003 11:00PM

Give Final Round a shot


ELMONT, N.Y. - Two years ago, trainer Rusty Arnold lost an Acorn Stakes he didn't think he could lose. Friday, he will try to win an Acorn the oddsmakers will suggest he can't win.

In 2001, Arnold sent out the lightly raced though mega-talented Victory Ride in the Acorn, a Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies. Despite having never raced in a stakes, Victory Ride was sent off the 7-5 favorite. She found room along the inside turning for home but fell a neck shy of 50-1 shot Forest Secrets.

"I never felt she was ever going to lose the first four times I ran her," said Arnold, who later won the Grade 1 Test with Victory Ride but then saw her career derailed by injury.

Friday, Arnold will saddle Final Round in the Acorn against six solid rivals. And while Arnold readily admits Final Round is no Victory Ride, he believes she has a legitimate chance to spring an upset in a race that has seen favorites lose in five of the last seven runnings.

The Acorn, run at one mile, will be the final race of a 10-race card that gets underway at 1 p.m., one of two Friday cards at this meet that will not start at the customary 3 p.m. The Acorn will be televised live on ESPN during a 90-minute broadcast (4:30-6 p.m. Eastern) that will also include tape-delayed coverage of the Flash Stakes for juvenile colts.

Also, the Acorn is the first leg of the Acorn-Belmont Stakes daily double.

Final Round, a daughter of Storm Cat, has never been worse than third in seven career starts. In her two most recent outings, Final Round finished an unlucky second in the Grade 3 Forward Gal at Gulfstream after stumbling at the start and won the Grade 3 La Troienne at Churchill Downs, rallying from last.

Arnold has been impressed with the way Final Round has trained since the La Troienne and believes now is the time to test Grade 1 waters. Gary Stevens will ride from post 6.

"I think she's as good as I can get her," Arnold said. "If she's fourth, I'll say I'm not as good as these."

The field for the Acorn is a talented group. It starts, of course, with the defending 2-year-old filly champion Storm Flag Flying and includes Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town, Fair Grounds Oaks winner Lady Tak, Nassau County winner House Party, and stakes winners Randaroo and Kitty Knight.

"You're not going to find a tougher group right now," Arnold said.

Storm Flag Flying, who capped a championship 2002 campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, will most likely be favored to bounce back from her first career defeat in the Comely Stakes April 18.

"I think she'll run good, whether that's good enough I don't know," said trainer Shug McGaughey, who plans to run Storm Flag Flying in the Mother Goose, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Alabama after Friday's race. "I hope the Acorn gets her to the next stop, and the next stop gets her to the next stop. I think racing is going to help her."

A cutback in distance may help Lady Tak, who finished sixth in the nine-furlong Kentucky Oaks. Lady Tak is 4 for 4 at a mile or shorter.

"The one-turn mile suits," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "She's a fast filly, she's very talented. We're asking a lot of her, but I think she's a Grade 1 filly."

Jerry Bailey, a four-time Acorn winner, rides Lady Tak from post 2.

Bird Town will attempt to become the ninth filly to win the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn, a list that includes Cicada, Davona Dale, Bold n Determined, and Open Mind. Trainer Nick Zito is somewhat leery cutting back to a one-turn mile, but he is more fearful of trying to train Bird Town up to the June 28 Mother Goose.

"This will be her toughest task; she's going back to a mile," Zito said.

House Party and Kitty Knight make up an uncoupled entry for trainer Allen Jerkens, a two-time Acorn winner. Randaroo has the speed to keep Lady Tak honest up front.