09/16/2004 11:00PM

Lassie sure is one complex puzzle

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - If River Downs is the hotbed of 2-year-old filly talent in the Midwest, Runway Model could be the horse for Sunday's Arlington-Washington Lassie. If you are unmoved by Runway Model's near-miss in River's Bassinet Stakes, what about Kota's victory in the Anna Fisher Debutante at Ellis Park?

You get the idea: If these are the race's most accomplished horses, the Lassie looks muddled.

Nine fillies who ran at five different racetracks last time out converge on closing day at Arlington for the Grade 3, $100,000 Lassie, a one-mile dirt race that bettors should find tough going. The Lassie, race 9, shares top billing on the card with the Grade 3 Futurity, race 6.

Runway Model and Kota have done the most, but how much is that? Runway Model, from the deep Bernie Flint barn, won a maiden race at Churchill this spring, then flopped in the Grade 3 Debutante there. But she relished River, winning the Bassinet prep by more than nine lengths, and after a poor start and a big late run, she missed by a neck in the Bassinet itself. Runway Model hasn't gone beyond six furlongs, but a one-turn mile is within reach of most decent 2-year-old sprinters.

Kota's $100,000 Ellis Park score came at seven furlongs, but she had help, closing from behind a fast early pace. Trainer Bob Holthus suggests Kota, who debuted in an $80,000 maiden claimer, is an overachiever. Indeed, she was beaten here in the $54,000 Silver Maiden earlier this summer.

Enter the local horses, especially Mary Alex, who prepped for the Lassie by finishing second to Three Hour Nap in an Aug. 29 allowance race. It was a useful loss. Three Hour Nap looks like a player in the Futurity, and the only reason Mary Alex ran against males was to get in a prep for the Lassie.

"I thought she relaxed pretty good for the first time going long and everything," said trainer Steve Hobby. "She's training super. She worked great the other day."

Culinary, another Arlington horse, has raced only once, but she won a one-mile maiden race by 11 lengths.

"It's difficult, because you don't know what's behind her," said trainer Mike Stidham, who wanted to run Culinary in a filly allowance race that never filled. "The best thing is if we could've gotten the allowance to go, but she's worked well enough for us to want to give her a shot."

The others in the Lassie are Bubble N Squeak, My Three Sisters, Patience Pays, Lady Dynasty, and Queansco.

In a race like this, they all get a look.