07/21/2005 12:00AM

Handicap has serious talent

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - No horse ever has come out of the Arlington Handicap to win the Arlington Million - though a couple have run second - and calling Saturday's race a Million prep might be a bit of a misnomer. Most years. But this year, the national turf division lacks depth, and the Arlington Handicap has talent, with , both Grade 2 winners and both Million hopefuls, heading the field.

Eight in all went into the Arlington Handicap, a Grade 3 worth $200,000 and run at 1 1/4 miles on turf. Besides the top two betting choices, the race brings out Cloudy's Knight, the best long-distance turf horse in Chicago, and Artiste Royal, who makes his North American debut. Of the other three - B.A. Way, Diplomatic Agent, and Major Rhythm - appear overmatched, while Demeteor would need to rebound from five straight subpar races in order to contend.

Cool Conductor never has been based in Chicago, but has run here four times, winning the Hawthorne Derby last fall and finishing second in the American Derby and third in the Arlington Classic over this course last summer. Back then, Cool Conductor was making his task harder by pulling too hard early in his races, but the horse has learned to relax, and he scored an upset this spring in the Dixie Handicap. Cool Conductor finished fourth in his last start, the United Nations, but that race turned into a "Twilight Zone" episode, with a rabbit leaping out to a 20-length lead, and Cool Conductor got caught up in the weirdness, finishing a close fourth behind Better Talk Now, also winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Turf.

"At the three-eighths pole, I thought we were going to be last, because he was losing position there, and usually you won't get anything when they start backing up," said trainer Ralph Nicks. "I don't really know exactly what happened."

Cool Conductor needs to be covered up in order to relax, and Vangelis needs some pace at which to launch his late run. But there is no speed in the Arlington Handicap, complicating analysis of the race. Major Rhythm could wind up in front by default, but expect a tightly bunched pack and slow fractions, the sort of race where the right trip and a sharp finishing burst will win the day.

Vangelis, who finished seventh in the 2003 Arlington Million and fifth in the race last year, could deliver the goods. He was third to Sweet Return and Red Fort last out in the Grade 1 Whittingham at Hollywood Park, and trainer Bobby Frankel said Vangelis lost a shoe in the race.