06/03/2002 11:00PM

Just how good is Squirrelnut Zipper?

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CHICAGO - Buying Florida-based turf horses has worked before for Barry Golden. Two years ago Golden purchased Where's Taylor, who was trying to push through his fourth allowance condition in south Florida. Two starts later, Where's Taylor came within a length of winning the $600,000 Explosive Bid Handicap at Fair Grounds, and he has bankrolled more than $600,000 racing for Golden.

Squirrelnut Zipper cannot realize the quick return on Golden's investment Where's Taylor did - he is not nearly as advanced as his predecessor. But Thursday at Arlington, Golden, a Chicagoan, can get a better idea of exactly what he owns when Squirrelnut Zipper faces eight horses in an entry-level turf allowance.

None of Squirrelnut Zipper's rivals can match the colt who beat him the last time he started. In a March 24 Gulfstream allowance race, Squirrelnut Zipper made a big move around the far turn to reach contention, but then ran into Legislator, who won off by more than four lengths. When Legislator came back with a powerful win in the Crown Royal American Turf at Churchill Downs, it cast a positive light on Squirrelnut Zipper's second-place finish.

The bloodstock agent Alan Bourque found both Where's Taylor and Squirrelnut Zipper for Golden, and with modest pedigrees, both horses were attractive to a buyer looking for a racing prospect. Both are trained by Hilary Pridham.

"I don't really have a line on how good [Squirrelnut Zipper] is yet," said Pridham. "You have to hope he develops into something decent."

"Decent" does not sufficiently commend Pridham's recent showing at Lone Star Park, where she won five races with nine starters. A longtime assistant for Noel Hickey and Mike Stidham, Pridham went out on her own last fall and, with limited starters, has been winning steadily from the start. At Arlington, she has eight horses with another soon to arrive, though Where's Taylor is not among them.

Sixth in the Maker's Mark Mile on April 6 at Keeneland, Where's Taylor came out of the race with a chip in his ankle that required surgery to remove. He is recovering at a farm, and Pridham hopes to have him back in her barn later this summer.

New streak for Mandy's Gold?

As of Tuesday there were only four probable starters for Saturday's Chicago Breeders' Cup Handicap, a sprint for fillies and mares, but a number of other horses are under consideration for the Grade 3 race and as many as 11 could run.

Mandy's Gold heads the list of likely starters, with Cat in the Hat, Extended View, and Soul Onarazorsedge also considered probable.

Mandy's Gold arrived here by van early Tuesday morning after a trip from trainer Mike Gorham's base at Delaware Park. Behind the Bluff, a filly who will run here Sunday in the Flawlessly Stakes, also made the trip.

Mandy's Gold began her career by finishing first five times in a row, though she was disqualified from first to second in the last of those wins, the Comely Stakes in April 2001. But a long dry spell followed her prolific start, and Mandy's Gold won for the first time since the Comely in the May 25 My Juliet Stakes at Philadelphia Park.

That was only two weeks ago, and in the back of Gorham's mind is the issue of running Mandy's Gold back on short rest, with a long van ride between starts.

"It's fairly close, but she did come out of her last race extremely well," Gorham said. "Hopefully, it'll be enough time."

Among the fillies on the fence for the Chicago BC is Caressing, whose status for the race will be firmed up after a breeze Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs. Caressing, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2000, has not tried a distance as short as seven furlongs since she won the La Troienne in the spring of 2001.

"She had a good work the other day," said trainer Dave Vance, who said there was a 60 percent chance Caressing would run. "I feel like she's one solid work away from her best effort."

Regardless of how she performs this summer, Caressing is only a couple races from being retired, since she was bred in April to Fusaichi Pegasus and is carrying a foal. Caressing is within range of $1 million in career earnings, a mark owner Carl Pollard would like to strike before Caressing becomes a full-fledged broodmare.

"We're not looking for major things from her," said Vance, who will point Caressing to the Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park on Aug. 10 if she continues to train well.

Vance has never trained an in-foal racemare, but he sees no negative signs from Caressing.

"In the olden days they didn't do this as much, but it seems like it's getting more common," Vance said. "The filly seems like nothing is bothering her at the track."