05/27/2005 11:00PM

Mister Gus serves as launch pad

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - For several of the horses entered in Monday's Mister Gus Stakes at Arlington, the race functions like the hub of an airline, a stop on the way to somewhere else.

launches his 2005 season six months after turning in a career-best effort, finishing a close second in the Grade 3 River City at Churchill Downs. Some kind of decent performance Monday slots him in a higher-profile stakes next time out.

The June 25 Black Tie Affair, a $75,000-added turf race restricted to Illinois-breds, has Fort Prado's name written on it.

And as for , his people simply want to send him to a far, far different place than the horse has been during the last nine months; they're hoping the Mister Gus gets him there.

Eight were entered in the $40,000 Mister Gus, scheduled for about one mile on turf, and the field is significantly stronger than the class level. Also in the race are Major Rhythm, winner of a $125,000 stakes last fall; the hard-hitting Illinois-bred Garsche; and Scooter Roach, who drops in class out of a pair of 12-furlong graded stakes.

With three straight wins and a near miss in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz, Herculated looked like a player in the national turf division about this time last year. But little has gone right since he won the Sea o'Erin over this course in August. Herculated contracted pleurisy during the winter, and was fighting a persistent lung infection when he finished eighth in the Connally Breeders' Cup on April 9 at Sam Houston, his most recent race. It was only after Herculated worked a half-mile Thursday that trainer Mike Stidham cemented plans to enter the Mister Gus.

Herculated "is a pretty easy horse to get ready," Stidham said, and shouldn't lose because he lacks fitness.

If Herculated runs his race, he clearly is the horse to beat.

"He's either right or he's wrong," said Stidham.

Cloudy's Knight came on strong the second half of last year, and his best racing probably is ahead of him.

"He gained weight over the break, and he really looks good," said trainer Frank Kirby.

Cloudy's Knight is more of a lumbering horse, one perhaps better at slightly longer distances.