05/12/2003 11:00PM

For this group, close but no cigar

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The featured race Thursday at Arlington ostensibly brings together third-level allowance horses, with a $62,500 claiming option available to bolster the field. But the six-furlong sprint might as well be written for horses who teetered on the threshold of real accomplishment - and backed away.

Manitowish has flirted with winning an Illinois-bred sprint stakes for the last couple of years, but hasn't been able to do it since winning the Tex's Zing at 3. He has earned almost $200,000 in a solid career, but that total might have been two or three times greater with just slightly more oomph.

"I don't like to give horses excuses," said Christine Janks, Manitowish's trainer. "They say that in the end, you only remember who won."

Now 6, Manitowish is entering the twilight of his career, his chance to break into the upper echelon fading. "He's getting some age on him now," Janks said. "Maybe he should be in even cheaper."

City Fear? Early last summer, he looked like any kind of colt. With a blowout maiden win at Hawthorne and consecutive allowance victories at Arlington, City Fear was on the fast track to a stakes career. Now, he has lost nine starts in a row.

And then there is Noon Affair, who has carved a deep niche in the three-other-than allowance ranks. Stuck at this class level for a year, Noon Affair finally broke through with a head win Feb. 16 at Hawthorne, only to be disqualified to second. The penalty added to Noon Affair's impressive tally - 13 second-place finishes in a 39-race career.

Man o' Rhythm hit his peak last season at age 5, but in 16 races, many of them strong ones, he finished third seven times with only two wins.

The other three horses in the race are different sorts, with fewer races and fewer frustrations. But they may not be as good. Cypress Cove has won 3 of 7 starts, and may not have handled a two-turn trip in his most recent start, but he faces older horses for the first time in his career. Always on Time - City Fear's entrymate - turned a perfect trip March 3 at Hawthorne into his fourth win in 12 starts, but he simply may not be good enough for this group. Fine Stormy has won 4 of his 14 starts, but his best performances have come in races restricted to Louisiana-breds.

And so on this day victory may fall to one of the might-have-beens - but would you be willing to bet on it?