06/20/2002 12:00AM

Mystery Giver heads Cardinal


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - In some quarters they known as ill-bred on the assumption that Illinois Thoroughbreds are often not all that good.

But a glance at the Saturday program here reveals a picture quite different: The Prairie State Festival, statebred day at Arlington, features six interesting, well-populated fields, and it culminates in an excellent race, the $75,000 Cardinal Handicap.

All six races are worth $75,000 but the Cardinal is heads above the rest. Sixteen were entered to run 1 1/16 miles on turf, but since the field is capped at 14, the two lowest weights were excluded.

The remainder will suffice. Afleet Buck, Fan Club's Mister, Minor Wisdom, and Mystery Giver all have won open stakes in the last six months, Reno Rumble is the defending champion, and Just Like Jimmy ships from Churchill with top allowance form. They are the major players - now sort them out.

Tab Mystery Giver as the horse with the most upside. A 4-year-old owned and bred by Team Block and trained by Chris Block, Mystery Giver had just made his career debut at this time last year, and though he won three straight races in July and August, he didn't really blossom until October.

Since Block decided not to campaign a winter string, Mystery Giver went with Richie Scherer to Fair Grounds, where he was second in the Woodchopper Handicap before scoring his biggest win in the $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup. Mystery Giver didn't ship well and was badly beaten in the Connally Breeders' Cup at Sam Houston, and back at Fair Grounds was stopped cold in the $600,000 Explosive Bid, finishing 13th but beaten less than six lengths.

After the Explosive Bid, Mystery Giver got three months off. Block says the colt could stand to gain another 40 pounds, but is pleased with his training.

"He seems happy, and when he's happy, that's when he runs well," he said.

Fan Club's Mister won the Grade 2 American Derby here last summer and beat Mystery Giver in the Woodchopper. A recent sprint race was far too short, and back at two turns, Fan Club's Mister is the likely pacesetter.

Afleet Buck shouldn't be far behind. Earlier this month he wired the $100,000 Canterbury Derby.

Minor Wisdom, winner of the $200,000 Kentucky Cup Mile last fall, is a pace-presser who needs firm turf to be his best.