10/18/2006 12:00AM

Marquez bags long-awaited Grade 1


Back at Hawthorne Race Course on Wednesday, with low-level maiden-claimers running six furlongs in 1:15 not 50 yards from her stall, was Vacare, who four afternoons ago had been standing on the Keeneland turf course draped in glory after winning the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, the first Grade 1 victory for Vacare, for trainer Chris Block - and for jockey Carlos Marquez.

The Grade 1 barrier was late in coming down for Marquez, who turns 39 Saturday. Marquez, however, had nearly won the QE II way back in 1987, when he finished second on a Dave Kassen-trained longshot named Shot Gun Bonnie. He's had a few other shots in top-class races, but this may have been the first time Marquez rode a truly live horse in one. It wasn't all fun and games. Passing the stands for the first time Saturday, Vacare tossed her head, acting squirrelly when Marquez tried to take her back. A nightmare was developing - a rank run-off on a big, brightly lit stage.

"I took a strong hold of her, she threw her head up, and I'm like, 'Oh my God,' " Marquez said.

But panic he did not, and Vacare really is no run-off. By the middle of the clubhouse turn, Marquez had her settled down. She fired big time from a perfect pressing position, opening up in midstretch, then holding off a good finish from Mauralakana to score a minor upset.

Marquez was back at Hawthorne on Wednesday - for a rousing welcome of exactly zero mounts on the card. He sat in the hot box early in the afternoon, then got ready to head home. Marquez was to ride three on Thursday's card.

Through last week, his nine wins ranked ninth in the standings here. At Arlington, he won 31 races, 11th-best among the colony there. Yet Block did not hesitate to keep Marquez on Vacare, who is unbeaten after four starts, all with Marquez riding.

"I got one call from one other agent, but I was real happy I stuck with him," said Block. "I think he deserved it."

Marquez, who has ridden from the East Coast to the Far East, has a reputation for top-shelf talent mixed with occasionally questionable judgment. He cites his decision to suddenly pull out of the Hawthorne meet and head to Fair Grounds two autumns ago as detrimental to his Chicago business. This past spring, he was supposed to leave Oaklawn and ride first-call for owner Mike Gill at Monmouth, but Gill scaled back his business so much that Marquez had no reason to go. So back he came to Chicago. This time, Marquez plans to ride through the cold, dark end of the Hawthorne meet.

There could be a trip to Kentucky in early November, if the Vacare people elect to go to the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf Nov. 4. That decision hasn't been made yet, Block said, though Vacare came out of her race well and is scheduled to return to the track Thursday. To complicate matters, Vacare is cataloged in a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky sale Nov. 5.

Torres ready for action again

Another jockey back in Chicago this week after a trip to Kentucky is Francisco Torres, though his venture south was not nearly as pleasant as Marquez's Grade 1-winning journey. Torres checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic shortly after the start of the Hawthorne meet in mid-September, in a fight once again with substance abuse. His agent, Robert Kelly, said Torres successfully completed the program and has been named to ride here Friday.

"He'll ride for three weeks at Hawthorne, then go to Fair Grounds if it all works out," Kelly said.

Torres, who had an excellent Arlington meet, never had a ruling issued against him in Chicago. Nevertheless, Kelly said Torres had to provide proof to Hawthorne stewards that he had completed the rehab program and pass a urinalysis before he could begin riding.

Silver Bid retired after two flops

Silver Bid, one of the top Illinois-bred sprinters of recent seasons, has been retired, trainer Joel Berndt said. Silver Bid won an Illinois-bred stakes race as recently as this past spring, but his form had slipped markedly since then. Berndt and owner Eugene Young gave Silver Bid a couple of chances to turn things around by running him in $40,000 claiming races during this Hawthorne meet, but Silver Bid finished 10th and eighth, and rather than drop him any farther in class, Berndt and Young pulled the plug. Silver Bid wound up with a career record of 55-17-15-8 and earnings of $775,784 - not bad for a son of the stallion Buckbean and the Al Mamoon mare Pinochle.

A good spot for Star by Design

Star by Design was considered a possible starter in last Saturday's Hawthorne Derby, a nine-furlong turf race, but he runs instead in the featured third race here Friday, a 6 1/2-furlong dirt race. The Friday feature is for second-level allowance horses - and Star by Design looks good in it.

Star by Design, trained by Richard Hazelton, had raced with blinkers on early in his career, but they were taken off in May. Hazelton put blinkers back on for an Aug. 11 Arlington sprint race, and Star by Design moved far forward and won by more than nine lengths. He followed that up three weeks later with a good third in the Prairie Meadows Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race perhaps slightly farther than Star by Design's best distance.