11/10/2004 12:00AM

Magic Doe, 9, has new lease on life

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CHICAGO - On the Chicago backstretch in the morning you were supposed to watch out for the car driven by Jim Eckrosh, headed - sometimes erratically - from his stables to the racing office.

Eckrosh seems to be that way, not a man to give up driving even at age 93. For years, he had kept on training a horse or two in Chicago, though home and wife were in Iowa. Eckrosh stayed by himself near Arlington or Sportsman's or Hawthorne at a cheap-ish motel. He made it to the track every day.

Finally last year the time came when the routine played out, and Eckrosh went home. The pillar of his sort of lonely, enduring stable did not. Magic Doe came back at age 9, which for humans might be somewhere closer to a senior citizen in decent-class racehorse years. Two weeks ago, Magic Doe won the $25,000 Woodlands Handicap in Kansas City, Kan., his first victory in two years and seven months. That was five days after his owner, William Cortesi, a businessman of suburban Chicago, had died at 85. Cortesi, who did very well in groceries, helped keep Eckrosh going for years.

Mr. Cortesi's nephews, who race as the Redfish Stable, and Eckrosh's replacement and friend, Jim McCoy, have brought Magic Doe back to Chicago for still another round. He makes his 83rd start Saturday in the $100,000-added High Alexander, part of the annual fall festival of Illinois stakes racing.

Magic Doe has been here before. When the fall statebred stakes were run at abandoned Sportsman's Park, Magic Doe won the Lightning Jet Handicap two years in a row, in 2001 and 2002. But when McCoy got a hold of the old boy this spring, Magic Doe had lost his speed. Now he is a budding route horse, with his recent win over one mile, and Magic Doe is eschewing the six-furlong Lightning Jet for the day's two-turn race for older horses.

Who knows if he can actually win.

"I don't know if he's a threat to win it, but if a couple of them make mistakes, he'll be there," cautioned McCoy.

McCoy, 65, talks to or sees Eckrosh regularly. He hopes to pick him up Thursday and drag him to Chicago for a few days of visiting and a look at his old charge, back in stakes action.

"I kind of haul him around," McCoy said. "We're good friends. He's just not well enough to train. Mentally, he's sharp as a razor."

Neither is Magic Doe eager to go gently into that good night. He broke a 20-race losing streak the day he won in Kansas City, but the horse has gone through bad patches before; a six-race losing streak in '99, eight losses in a row the next year. From the fall of 2000 to the fall of 2001, Magic Doe lost 10 straight. Then he won five of his next seven, two of them stakes.

"He's certainly not what he once was. He's 9 years old," McCoy said. "But he's vigorous and strong, and loves what he's doing. I've tried to stop on him, and he gets kind of ratty. We'll keep going as long as he wants to."

At some point it gets beyond wanting to. You just keep going.