05/08/2003 12:00AM

Learning to rate revives career


CHICAGO - It's going on two years since Woodmoon beat Macho Uno and narrowly lost to Western Pride in the Ohio Derby. Nothing terrible has happened since then, but neither has Woodmoon done anything extraordinary.

Last winter something clicked for Woodmoon. A habitual front-runner, he discovered how to race from behind, and this new rate-and-rally style has, belatedly, given Woodmoon a chance to fulfill the promise of that Ohio race.

Woodmoon can show off his progress Saturday at Arlington Park, where he faces six rivals in the first stakes of this meet, the $100,000 Black Tie Affair Handicap. Woodmoon could be the second or third choice in the 1 1/8-mile Black Tie Affair. Bonus Pack, dropping from graded stakes company, is the likely favorite, while Fight for Ally also will have his supporters.

Niall O'Callaghan, who trains Woodmoon for owner Henry Pabst, said: "We might have been using him a bit early in his races before now. Also, he had a couple little ailments that stopped him from progressing last year. He's very sound right now."

O'Callaghan still regards the Ohio Derby as Woodmoon's zenith, but an allowance win April 19 at Keeneland approached a new peak. Racing far behind a fast early pace - which he would have been part of earlier in his career - Woodmoon rallied strongly to outkick the Bobby Frankel-trained El Gran Papa by three-quarters of a length.

"Without a doubt, he's headed back in the direction of a horse that could start running in better races," O'Callaghan said.

The 56-year-old Hall of Famer Earlie Fires is on the horse to beat in the Black Tie Affair. That's Bonus Pack, who ran a strong race to finish third here last fall in the Washington Park Handicap. This year, Bonus Pack has hooked Harlan's Holiday twice and Hero's Tribute twice, and has shown he's a cut below that quality. This ungraded stakes is more his style, and trainer Tom Proctor should have Bonus Pack ready for his best after a six-week freshening.

Fight for Ally already has had a great year, his three-race winning streak was capped off April 19 in the $250,000 National Jockey Club Handicap. What Fight for Ally earned in that race was substantially more than owner Frank Calabrese paid for him last winter, and trainer Wayne Catalano believes Fight for Ally has another top performance left in him.

"It doesn't look like he will bounce," said Catalano, who was aboard Fight for Ally for a four-furlong breeze this week.