07/02/2005 12:00AM

Kitten's Joy gives mile a whirl

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Eclipse Award winner Kitten's Joy, working last week at Churchill under Faustino Orantes, makes his first start Monday since undergoing knee surgery.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the aftermath of a breakthrough victory by Kitten's Joy in the Secretariat Stakes last August in Chicago, the colt's connections found themselves in a dilemma: shorter or longer?

Owner Ken Ramsey and trainer Dale Romans ultimately chose longer races for Kitten's Joy than the 1 1/4-mile Secretariat, a decision that paid off with the 2004 Eclipse Award for top turf horse. Still, both men believe that either option would have been the correct one, since Kitten's Joy has the kind of brilliance and versatility to be a top miler, too.

That school of thought will get tested to a fair degree Monday at Churchill Downs when Kitten's Joy returns from an eight-month layoff in the Grade 2, $250,000 , a one-mile turf race that drew just six older horses.

Kitten's Joy will carry high weight of 124 pounds when he breaks under Edgar Prado from post 4 as the likely odds-on choice in the Firecracker. His main rivals figure to be America Alive, who won the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic here eight weeks ago, and Senor Swinger, a Bob Baffert-trained colt with a 5-for-8 record over the Churchill turf course.

Romans, recalling the crossroads he and Ramsey faced with Kitten's Joy following the Secretariat, said: "He hadn't tried the mile and a half, and we kind of went that way because it's a specialty distance that not many horses can handle. Obviously he liked it. He ended up doing great, especially in the

Joe Hirsch, which was probably his most powerful race of the year."

After his breathtaking score in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont in October, Kitten's Joy ended his season with a runner-up finish as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders' Cup Turf, a race that sealed his championship. Less than two weeks later, Kitten's Joy underwent surgery to have a chip removed from his knee by Dr. Larry Bramlage at the Rood and Riddle equine clinic in Lexington.

"The surgery went better than expected when we first took him to the clinic," said Romans. "Dr. Bramlage said the chip was outside the joint and had caused no damage to the cartilage. He was extremely pleased with how the surgery went."

Months later, Kitten's Joy, a 4-year-old homebred by El Prado, "looks bigger and stronger," said Romans. "I really think he could be even better this year than last. I think I've got him about 90 percent for this race, which hopefully is good enough to win."

Romans said the Aug. 13 Arlington Million will be next for Kitten's Joy. "I'm trying not to look past that," he said. "We've talked about taking him to Europe after that, then getting back here for the Joe Hirsch and the Breeders' Cup, and maybe even the Japan Cup after that. But that's getting way ahead of the game."

To make a successful comeback Monday, Kitten's Joy probably will have to use the burst of speed that made him such a standout at 3. "He has such a good turn of foot, I don't see why he can't win Monday," said Romans. "Coming off layoffs, horses tend to be sharper than normal. His last workout was just what I wanted, so I think he's ready for the mile, even though it's not his ideal distance."

Neil Howard, trainer of America Alive, said he has "all the respect in the world for Kitten's Joy, but you can't dwell on that.

"My horse is looking good, training good, and we've just zeroed in on this race without trying to pay too much attention to anything else," Howard said. "I know Kitten's Joy is a champion and all that, but we're in there hoping our horse runs his race. He's got the kind of kick that's more effective at one and one-eighth, maybe even shorter, so let's see what happens."

The rest of the Firecracker field is Old Forester, Parker Run, and Mighty Military.

Eleven races will be run here Monday, with the Firecracker going as the 10th. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern. Admission is free.

After the Monday card, Churchill goes dark for two days before the final four-day stretch of the spring meet begins Thursday.