09/23/2003 12:00AM

Kickboard steps up to get turf race

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CHICAGO - Kickboard is a maiden in an overnight stakes race, a three-time starter who has never gotten within six lengths of winning a race. But when Kickboard sets foot on Arlington Park's turf course Thursday afternoon, it might feel like home.

The 2-year-old Kickboard is by the top stallion Kingmambo, and his mother is a daughter of the world's best grass sire, Sadler's Wells. After three races on dirt tracks, Kickboard finally switches to turf, the surface for which he is bred, in the $45,000 Manila Stakes.

Racetrackers point to dish-shaped feet or the nature of a horse's stride as clues to turf ability, but Elliott Walden, Kickboard's trainer, doesn't buy such explanations. "I don't adhere to believing you can see that a horse will run on grass," Walden said. "My big belief is that if they're bred for it, they have a chance to prefer running on it."

The surface switch has been in the offing for some time. "I've entered him six times for grass, and he hasn't gotten in," said Walden, who trains Kickboard for owner-breeder WinStar Farm. "He was on the also-eligible list twice at Saratoga, and he was in [Monday] at Kentucky Downs when they canceled because of all the rain. I'm looking forward to trying him on grass."

Out of other options for the time being, Kickboard must run in a stakes to get turf, but the one-mile Manila is more like a first-level allowance. Of the six horses entered, only Texas Deputy has won more than once, and Texas Deputy won his maiden in a $50,000 claiming race.

And only Knox, the likely favorite, and Atten Hut, a longshot, have started in turf races. Atten Hut won a grass sprint last month at Louisiana Downs, while Knox was a big maiden winner here Sept. 3 in a one-mile grass race. By Menifee - a colt Walden trained during his racing days - Knox may have benefited from his switch from dirt to turf, but it is just as likely that subpar opposition fueled his 5 3/4-length win last time out.

Even on dirt, Kickboard has flashed ability. In his career debut at Arlington he finished third to the promising Old Kent Road in a five-furlong sprint. Stretched out to a mile, he was fourth behind the promising Victory Light. Not wanting to waste the trip from Arlington to Saratoga, Walden put Kickboard in another dirt sprint there, and he finished fourth of eight after making a three-wide move before fading.

With grass beneath his feet this time, Kickboard may sustain that run.