05/16/2002 12:00AM

Like last year, is this Gold Cup a key race?

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CHICAGO - It's tempting to see Saturday's $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup as a strictly regional race, a spot where a few decent horses run for a nice purse at a mid-level track tucked into a heavily industrialized corridor just west of Chicago.

But with a tableau of smelters, stacked shipping containers, and waste management sites as a backdrop, the Gold Cup showcases what could turn into a key field in this year's handicap division. That's what happened last year, though no one really knew it at the time.

Duckhorn led from gate to wire a year ago, followed home by Lido Palace and Guided Tour. Within months, the two-three finishers won major handicap races in the East and Midwest, validating the Gold Cup's strength. This field has the same potential.

Only six start in the Grade 2, 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup, but five can win. The outsider is Chicago Six, rugged and classy, but unproven at this level. His rivals, from the rail out, are Parade Leader, victorious in the New Orleans Handicap in late March; Hail the Chief, romping winner of the National Jockey Club Handicap next door at Sportsman's Park; Dollar Bill, a troubled third in the Oaklawn Park Handicap; Sir Bear, a Grade 1-winning 9-year-old; and Duckhorn, who returns to defend his title.

With little separating the ability of the major players, the race boils down to tactics and luck. "The horses are the ones running, but the jockeys will have a lot of decisions to make," said Niall O'Callaghan, who trains the speedy Hail the Chief.

O'Callaghan will leave the tough decisions to jockey Jorge Chavez. "I left it to him the last time, and I'll leave it to him again," O'Callaghan said.

What Chavez decides could determine the race's outcome. Duckhorn and jockey Randy Meier are almost certainly going to the lead, from where all Duckhorn's best races have come. Duckhorn stays a mile and a quarter, and what makes things tricky is his high cruising speed - he can run a half-mile in 46 seconds and appear to barely feel it.

Hail the Chief is fast, too, and he cleared several other speed horses before the first turn of the NJC Handicap. But is he fast enough to run with Duckhorn? And if he is and does, will either have anything left for the stretch run?

Parade Leader, Dollar Bill, and Sir Bear surely will. Parade Leader had no chance to catch Duckhorn in the Ben Ali, but he tried so hard that while galloping out past the wire, an exhausted Parade Leader stumbled and fell.

The spill didn't do serious harm to Parade Leader, a reformed turf horse who has continued to impress trainer Neil Howard with his training.

"He's doing as well now as he ever has," Howard said. "I was literally thrilled with his breeze [on Tuesday]."

The 4-year-old Dollar Bill has started only twice this year since returning from an injury, but he progressed last time out in the Oaklawn Park Handicap. He moved into a fast pace while wide on the far turn, but still just missed second place. "We're spacing his races," trainer Dallas Stewart said. "We want him around all year."

The 9-year-old Sir Bear, the pride of south Florida, lost his best chance in the March 30 Gulfstream Park Handicap when Hal's Hope cruised out to an easy lead.

Brazil's Roxinho makes U.S. debut

Earlier on the card, Brazilian champion Roxinho makes his United States debut in the $45,000 Overage Stakes.

The 4-year-old Roxinho came out of provincial races in the Brazilian countryside last fall to sweep the Brazilian triple crown, a series of three Group 1 turf races, winning the first of them at almost 40-1. By the final leg, the Derby Paulista, Roxinho was a strong favorite as he won by six lengths over 17 rivals.

"I don't who was in it, but that was about the easiest win I've seen," said Greg Fox, co-owner with Earle Mack of Roxinho who trains in Kentucky with Jamie Knight.

"He's a beautiful horse," Fox said. "We don't have any idea how good he might be."

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