07/28/2003 12:00AM

Honor in War boosts barn


CHICAGO - Honor in War, on the strength of his neck victory in the $250,000 Arlington Handicap here Saturday, remains on track for the Arlington Million on Aug. 16. And a million-dollar race is a fine place to be headed if you are a trainer whose season has been dented by injuries.

"He's just fine. He came out of the race in good shape," the trainer Paul McGee said Sunday. McGee has a handful of horses at Arlington, but keeps his main string in Kentucky. Nevertheless, he said Honor in War would remain at Arlington to train up to the Million.

Honor in War, winner of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve, a breakthrough victory for him this spring, raced midpack in a large field Saturday before making an early move under David Flores. He reached contention on the far turn, moved to the lead at the top of the stretch, and fought hard to beat the charging Better Talk Now.

"It was a big effort," said McGee. "The other horse was getting to him a little bit, but my horse was still running at the end."

McGee's stable is mired in a down year - something he is completely unaccustomed to. One of the highest-percentage major trainers year-in and year-out in Kentucky, McGee entered this week with just an 11-percent strike rate, far below his standards.

"It has been kind of a slow for me," McGee acknowledged. "I've had a lot of horses get hurt this year."

At the same time, McGee has developed Honor in War into a major player in the turf division and perhaps his most recognizable horse, save the ageless sprinter Bet on Sunshine, who was retired last season.

"Sure it helps things to have a horse like this," said McGee, who trains Honor in War for owner Will Wolford's Third Turn Stable. "After he won the Woodford Reserve, the Million became our major objective. So far, everything has worked out."

Better Talk Now and Mystery Giver, second and third in Saturday's race, are unlikely for the Million. Better Talk Now ran perhaps the best race of his career, but his trainer, Graham Motion, has said he won't wheel back in the Million. Better Talk Now is a slight horse and would be forced to ship from Maryland to Chicago twice in a month, a taxing schedule.

Wiggins steps up

Saturday's Round Table was a disappointment for the heavy favorite, Best Minister, but a breakout race for Wiggins, the Illinois-bred 3-year-old who won by nearly five lengths. Making his first start around two turns and jumping from statebred company to an open stakes, Wiggins had little trouble disposing of Best Minister, winner of the Sir Barton last spring at Pimlico.

"He's been doing awfully good," said trainer Tony Granitz, who has steadily brought Wiggins along this season. "He's really developed the last couple months. He's maturing. He had been really rank, but he's cool now. He'll stand for a half-hour out on the track in the morning and just look around."

Plans for Wiggins's next start are fluid. Granitz said he would nominate to the West Virginia Derby, but that race is Aug. 9 and probably comes up too quickly for Wiggins. The Pennsylvania Derby next month at Philadelphia Park is another option.

Meanwhile, the soundly defeated Best Minister may run back in the West Virginia Derby, but trainer Ken McPeek said he is also considering the Grade 1 Secretariat on turf. "There are some grass horses in his family," McPeek said.

Best Minister came back bleeding after the Round Table, but suffered just a superficial cut on his tongue during the race, McPeek said. "He had a lot of blood in his mouth coming back, but by the time we got back to the barn it had stopped."