07/26/2002 12:00AM

Maniatis has plans for Spa


SALEM, N.H. - Trainer Art Maniatis is one of the most optimistic denizens of the Rockingham Park backside. He's never afraid to aim high when he gets a talented runner in his barn, and if Basil's Rhythm can come out of Sunday's $25,000 Lou Smith Memorial Handicap with a good performance, Saratoga will be in Maniatis's sights next.

Basil's Rhythm has kept Maniatis excited and edgy throughout the horse's 22-race career. He began 2002 as a Massachusetts Handicap hopeful, but health troubles kept that from happening. Maniatis tried the next-best thing by sending him on the grass in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes June 22.

One would think a 49-length loss to Del Mar Show in the Sweeps might dampen some of Maniatis's enthusiasm, but when Basil's Rhythm came back to win an $18,000 dirt race earlier this month, all systems went back to go. "He's doing very well," said Maniatis. "[Jockey] Taylor Hole said he only used him for about a quarter-mile of that race. I wish the race was right now. I can't wait."

Maniatis thinks most of the 4-year-old's problems are behind him. The Smith's 1 1/16 miles fit the colt's stalking style, as evidenced by three wins in seven lifetime starts at the distance. The pneumonia that cut short his spring campaign is behind him, and there won't be any more grass experiments any time soon. "If he clears this, then I've already got him going to Saratoga for the Breeders' Cup Handicap on August 17th," said Maniatis.

Clearing this race won't be easy with the strong field assembled. Jini's Jet will look for his 12th career victory and third straight. He'll be the starting highweight and has won five of six races at the distance.

He will likely get help setting the pace from Dhaffir, the latest horse to go from a recent claiming race in Kentucky into a stakes race in New Hampshire. Trainer Pamela Ange-vine spent $40,000 of owner Henry Barry's money to get the Chilean-bred from a race at Churchill Downs.

The speedy Flex Jet will also be in action after finishing second to Basil's Rhythm in their last encounter. Leading jockey Winston Thompson will ride for Yasou Stable and trainer Charlie Assimakopolous.

Soes Bandit returns home for the Lou Smith after a second to First Amendment in the Shecky Greene at Delaware last month. Prior to that, he trailed home last in the Mass Cap.

Comic Genius is also back home after a three-race spring campaign in New York and New Jersey. He hasn't won since April at Suffolk Downs but, like Basil's Rhythm, he was once regarded as a top local contender for the Mass Cap.

Trainer Nick Zito will send Inca Slew back to New England looking to build on a victory here last month. The 5-year-old son of Seattle Slew will try to give Zito his second stakes win of the meet after Bag of Mischief won the Rockingham Derby July 7.

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