07/23/2002 11:00PM

Gretchen's Star the one and only for Isbell


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Ron Isbell could talk for only a short time Wednesday morning. Gretchen's Star, munching on grass in some quiet corner of the Thoroughbred Training Center outside Lexington, Ky., needed to be brought back to his stall. If Isbell didn't do it, who would?

Gretchen's Star is Isbell's only horse, given to him for nothing in 1999 when a bowed tendon threatened to end the horse's career. Isbell waited more than a year for the injury to heal, trading his own labor in exchange for board at the farm where Gretchen's Star was turned out.

Thursday, Isbell will load Gretchen's Star onto a friend's horse trailer and drive the 7-year-old horse to Arlington, where he will race Saturday in the Arlington Handicap.

The horse is no rank outsider. In four starts since he came back to the races, Gretchen's Star has won three times, and he has never lost on turf. In his first race this season, he beat Private Son, who also starts in the Arlington Handicap and barely lost to Cetewayo in the Grade 3 Stars and Stripes.

Gene and Kay Alfrey owned Gretchen's Star in 1999. The colt was no world-beater. His first win came in a $15,000 maiden-claiming race at Turfway Park, and later that year he suffered a serious tendon injury. The Alfreys were edging out of the game anyway, and on the condition he provide Gretchen's Star with a good home they gave the horse to Isbell, Gretchen Star's groom and hotwalker.

"I did therapy on him for 90 days and hand-walked him, then turned him out for a year," said Isbell.

There are others like Isbell at the Thoroughbred Training Center, trainers with a couple of horses who barely scrape by. Isbell said he had almost had enough long hours and short pay, but stuck it out through Gretchen's Star's recuperation.

"He was probably healed up after four or five months, but they say a year is best," Isbell said.

Back in training, the tendon held up fine, and in his second race back last fall Gretchen's Star won a Churchill turf allowance. Isbell tried briefly to get the horse in at Fair Grounds, then gave up and waited for Keeneland.

"The thing is, he wasn't totally fit when he beat Private Son," Isbell said.

But then Gretchen's Star got his feet over his stall door and badly cut his legs. Miraculously, the tendon was fine, but the injuries prevented Isbell from training the horse as hard as he would have liked before a June 29 race at Churchill.

"He wasn't completely fit then either," said Isbell, but Gretchen's Star still won easily. "He's fit now, and I'm anxious to see how good he can be."

While Isbell has one horse, Gretchen's Star has many fans. The Alfreys still follow Gretchen's Star, and the Thoroughbred Training Center is a close-knit society. "Everybody down here is rooting for him, too," said Isbell.

Field assembling for Handicap

Strut the Stage arrived from Woodbine early Wednesday morning and will gallop the next two days in preparation for the Arlington Handicap. Strut the Stage probably will be favored in the race, with the likely second choice, Kappa King, scheduled to arrive Thursday from California.

Other likely starters are Bahroba, Catchy Word, Falcon Flight, Mystery Giver, National Anthem, and Tubrok.

Trainer Chris Block said Mark Guidry will be in from Saratoga to ride Mystery Giver, the Illinois-bred who may be the most promising local horse.

Guidry also is booked to ride Ioya Two, one of two horses Block saddles in the Modesty. Block also starts Innit, who joined his barn less than two weeks ago.

England's Legend, the likely favorite in the Modesty, arrived here Wednesday from New York.

A P. Five Hundred jumps into stakes

So what if A.P. Five Hundred just won a maiden race. Niall O'Callaghan has trained enough stakes horses the last few years to know what one looks like.

A.P. Five Hundred makes his first start against winners in Saturday's Round Table Stakes for 3-year-olds. A good field of about seven is expected for the $100,000, nine-furlong race. Windward Passage and Pass Rush might be the favorites, but do not take A.P. Five Hundred lightly.

"We've always thought he was very talented," said Jennifer Brown, O'Callaghan's Churchill-based assistant.

A.P. Five Hundred ran once at age 2, finishing eighth in a five-furlong race. "We gave him time off this winter to grow up," Brown said. "He was trying to bite the other horses all the time. It takes him a mile just to realize it's not play time out there."

But A.P. Five Hundred has started to come around. He puts more into his training and has become more professional. The improved behavior has allowed his natural talent to come out, and in his maiden A.P. Five Hundred beat another talented horse, Better Talk Now, by almost five lengths.

Summer Mis looks in top shape

Summer Mis, the best Illinois-bred 3-year-old filly, is on target for the Grade 3 Singapore Plate Stakes here Aug. 10 after an impressive win in an open allowance race Saturday.

Facing a good field of older fillies, Summer Mis rated and rallied to win by almost five lengths, running a mile in a good time. Though she won a statebred stakes here in June, the race may have been the best of her career.

"She was a little tired the next day, but she's okay now," said trainer Tony Mitchell. "After the way she ran the other day, I've got to give her a shot in the Singapore Plate."

- Lakenheath, an impressive allowance winner here July 17, is likely to race next in the Gardenia Stakes on Aug. 10 at Ellis Park. Lakenheath also could start here in the Sept. 2 Arlington Matron, trainer Gene Cilio said.