05/26/2004 11:00PM

No clear-cut favorite in Hanshin Handicap


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - To pay a horse a compliment on the backstretch, say that he tries. The ones who give everything are the ones they love back there.

The top five contenders in Saturday's Hanshin Handicap don't know the meaning of quit. Among them, Wiggins, Coach Jimi Lee, Kodema, Crafty Shaw, and Apt to Be have won 48 of 113 starts. That's a .424 batting average. Ty Cobb would be proud.

Lauding these horses is the easy part. It gets harder picking a winner.

Little separates the leading quintet in the Grade 3, $100,000 Hanshin, though two others in the race, Fighting Indians and Attack the Books, seem overmatched. Contested at a one-turn mile, the Hanshin is something of a specialist's race, but at least four of the top five are perfectly suited for the trip. The fifth is Coach Jimi Lee, a sprinter of quality who tries stretching his speed Saturday in Arlington's first stakes of 2004. Coach Jimi Lee, breaking from post 2, should make the lead, with Wiggins, Crafty Shaw, and the defending champion Apt to Be close behind. Kodema is the stalker; Attack the Books and Fighting Indians race from farther back.

Apt to Be, a 7-year-old owned by Arlington chairman Dick Duchossois, has made 26 starts, none better than his win in last year's Hanshin, a seven-length triumph in a swift 1:34.40. But Apt to Be's spring hasn't gone smoothly. With no dirt races filling for Apt to Be at the Hawthorne meet, trainer Chris Block settled for a turf start, and Apt to Be barely got out of a gallop.

"He's doing really well right now. He loves this track," Block said. "But I wish I had another race under his belt, no doubt about it."

Crafty Shaw, in from Churchill Downs for trainer Pete Vestal, is approaching $1 million in career earnings, and he has tangled with better horses than his main rivals in the Hanshin. Crafty Shaw is 6, with 38 starts, but Vestal says he believes his horse remains on top of his game.

"He always trained like a good horse," Vestal said. "He still does, for that matter."

Indeed, Crafty Shaw's recent worktab is all about verve: five furlongs in 58 seconds, five more in 57.60.

Wiggins, among the best Illinois-breds in training, comes into the Hanshin in excellent physical condition and has the talent to win. Post 1 could present problems, but jockey Eddie Razo isn't letting on.

"If they go slow, we can go to the lead. If they're going fast, we'll wait," Razo said.

Wherever the tactics lead, these horses will be trying.