09/12/2004 11:00PM

Grade 1-caliber Ticker Tape, Spotlight enliven Pucker Up


CHICAGO - A surprise showdown is looming in Saturday's Grade 3 Pucker Up Stakes at Arlington. Normally a race that attracts only regionally based horses and true to its grade, the Pucker Up, a 3-year-old filly grass race, could attract Spotlight from the East Coast and Ticker Tape from California. Both those horses are more Grade 1 than Grade 3 types.

Arlington racing officials said Monday that Spotlight, based with trainer Christophe Clement in New York, was expected to ship in for the Pucker Up. Spotlight, an impressive winner of her only two U.S. starts, including the Grade 2 Lake Placid at Saratoga, was scratched from Sunday's Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup at Belmont.

Monday morning, trainer James Cassidy confirmed that Ticker Tape, winner of the Grade 1 American Oaks in July, was booked on a Wednesday flight to Arlington. While the Spotlight vs. Ticker Tape matchup would be a boon to racing fans, Cassidy is not thrilled with its prospect.

"We weren't looking for a showdown in this one," Cassidy said.

Indeed, Cassidy was thinking of the Pucker Up in terms of a prep for the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, an invitation-only Grade 1 next month at Keeneland. At this point, Cassidy plans to ship Ticker Tape home after the Pucker Up to await the Queen Elizabeth, but he is leaving open the possibility of sticking around after Saturday's race.

Ticker Tape has been first or second in 11 of 15 grass starts, with the American Oaks her career highlight. She most recently finished second, beaten a nose by Amorama, in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.

Several regionally based horses have been pointing for the Pucker Up, and the field should still be decent-sized even if the two heavyweights run.

Rocky River sizzles in work

Rocky River's final work for the $200,000 Arlington-Washington Futurity was a scorcher, five furlongs in 58.80 seconds, by far the fastest work at the distance Sunday at Arlington.

There were 29 other five-furlong works the same morning, and no other horse went faster than 1:01.40.

"It was a little faster than we'd talked about, but he seemed to do it fine," said trainer Don Von Hemel. "He has a week to get over it, so I'm not concerned about how fast he went."

Some horses need a target to post such a fast work, but Rocky River did this by himself.

"I'd hate to put him with another horse," Von Hemel said.

Rocky River's opposition in Sunday's race remains unclear, though Elusive Chris, winner of the Ellis Park Juvenile, is expected to run, as is Three Hour Nap, an impressive allowance winner.

The Futurity shares top billing on Sunday's closing-day card with the $100,000 Lassie, which will get Ellis Park Debutante winner Cota and several other regionally based horses.

Martin breaks collarbone

Jockey Eddie Martin, who was on a hot streak at Arlington, will miss at least a month after breaking his collarbone in a spill Saturday. Martin was injured in the Paradise Creek Stakes after his mount, Sure Prize, clipped heels going into the first turn. Sure Prize, who was rank and difficult to control from the start, knocked Martin out of the irons, and he was thrown to the ground when the horse ducked out going into the first turn.

Martin's agent, Bobby Kelly, said Martin had suffered a hairline fracture of his collarbone, and would probably miss four of five weeks. If Martin recovers quickly, he could return for Lone Star's special Breeders' Cup meet.

Trainer race tight

The race for leading trainer figures to be hotly contested during Arlington's final week. Frank Kirby enters Wednesday's card with a precarious three-win lead, 29 to 26, over Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss. Chris Block has 25 wins.

Asmussen returns from a two-week suspension on Thursday, and has horses entered in five races.

* Cryptograph, working toward a possible start in the Super Derby, breezed a half-mile in 47.40 seconds Monday, second fastest among 44 works at the distance.