07/07/2004 11:00PM

'Mayo' better than last

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Some racing fans might still be wondering what happened three weeks ago at Arlington Park, where Mayo on the Side labored home a weak fourth in the Chicago Breeders' Cup as the 3-10 favorite.

Trainer Carl Nafzger and his staff were wondering, too, but were unable to come up with any plausible excuse for Mayo on the Side in that race. "Horse racing" is how a disappointed Ian Wilkes attempted to explain the defeat several days after the fact.

It is Wilkes, the longtime Nafzger assistant and confidant, who on Saturday will saddle Mayo on the Side in the HBPA Handicap at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. The fact that Mayo on the Side is wheeling back in such a relatively brief span helps to verify the stable's collective shrug of the shoulders, and it can only be assumed that if the mare returns to her two-back effort, in which she became a Grade 1 winner by defeating Azeri, that she will be very tough to beat in the $75,000 HBPA.

The HBPA, the first stakes of the 54-day Ellis season, is a prep for the richest and only graded race of the meet, the $200,000 Gardenia Stakes on Aug. 7. Nafzger and Wilkes tentatively have targeted the Grade 3 Gardenia as a mid-summer target for Mayo on the Side, so it follows that they would like to see her return to form Saturday.

At one mile, the HBPA is one furlong longer than the Chicago BC and the Humana Distaff, the May 1 race in which Mayo on the Side nipped Azeri by a head. Mayo on the Side, a 5-year-old French Deputy mare owned by the Lothenbach Stables, will face her Chicago BC conqueror, My Trusty Cat, in the HBPA, along with six other fillies and mares with designs on the Gardenia.

My Trusty Cat is trained by Dave Vance, who has enjoyed a decent summer despite winning only two races at the recently ended Churchill Downs meet. Vance not only won the Chicago BC with My Trusty Cat but also the Monmouth Oaks last weekend with La Reason. My Trusty Cat will break from post 1, just inside of Mayo on the Side.

From outside of Mayo on the Side, the rest of the HBPA field, in order, is Miss Fortunate, Pampered, Two Mile Hill, There Runs Hattie, Sue's Good News, and Reason to Talk.

First post is 12:40 p.m. Central.