02/01/2006 1:00AM

Orseno has another shot at Donn

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Ryan McAlinden/EQUI-PHOTO
On Thin Ice, here romping in the Hal's Hope, is headed for Saturday's Grade 1 Donn 'Cap.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - At the beginning of the millennium, Joe Orseno had one of the most powerful stables in the country, training exclusively for Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Farm. During the 2000 season alone, the pair combined to win the Preakness with Red Bullet, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Macho Uno, the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Perfect Sting, as well as the Grade 1 Pimlico Special and Grade 2 Stephen Foster with Golden Missile.

But after parting ways with Stronach in 2002, Orseno quietly faded from the spotlight. He resumed his career as a public trainer but never had the quality of horses necessary to compete at the upper levels - until Saturday, when he makes his first appearance in a Grade 1 race in four years with On Thin Ice, owned by D J Stable.

On Thin Ice, a 5-year-old gelded son of Tactical Cat, enters the 1 1/8-mile Donn off the best race of his career, a 5 3/4-length victory here last month in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Handicap in which he established a track record of 1:48.05 for 1 1/8 miles.

"His feet were bothering him when I got him, but we worked on the problem for a while, and I was finally able to really train him for the first time going into the Hal's Hope," said Orseno. "Right now he's as good and as fit as he's ever been, and I think he's still got a little left in the tank. Obviously this is a big step up, and he has to take on some very nice horses, but I don't believe we've gotten to the bottom of him yet."

Orseno said he backed off a little on On Thin Ice following his big win in the Hal's Hope.

"I played the bounce theory and trained him accordingly," Orseno explained. "I waited 2 1/2 weeks to do something with him after the race, and even then I worked him well in hand and he still went five furlongs in a minute and change."

Orseno is hoping On Thin Ice can make up for a couple of past frustrations in the Donn. Golden Missile ran a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 119 for Orseno in the 2000 Donn but still got beaten by three-quarters of a length by Stephen Got Even. Two years later he came back with Red Bullet, who fell a neck shy of Mongoose after an eventful trip.

"It was a little frustrating being out of the big time for a while, but if you don't have the business and don't have the horses it's tough to compete at the top," said Orseno. "It's just like coaching in the NFL. You can be the best coach around, but you're still only as good as your players."

Orseno also has one of his more promising 3-year-olds, Reaffirmed, nominated to Saturday's Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes, but said the race is coming up a little too tough for his liking. Reaffirmed won Monmouth Park's Continental Mile at 2 but has not started since finishing far back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"He's a nice horse, but I don't want to send him in against First Samurai the first time back," said Orseno, who trains Reaffirmed for the Rich Meadow Farm.

Brunilda has top work

As usual, the turf course at the Palm Meadows training center was packed to capacity during training hours on Wednesday. Among the most notable workers was Brunilda, who breezed a bullet half-mile in 47 seconds. Brunilda, a 6-year-old Argentine-bred trained by Stan Hough, is among the candidates for Saturday's Suwannee River Handicap.

Balto Star continues to train well toward his return, going five furlongs in 1:00 on Wednesday over the Palm Meadows turf. The versatile Balto Star, a Grade 1 winner, has not started since winning the Grade 2 Meadowlands' Breeders' Cup Stakes on dirt in October 2004.

Strong Contender nearing return for Ward

One of the most impressive winners of a 2-year-old race last summer was Strong Contender, who crushed a field of maidens in his lone start on Aug. 12 at Arlington Park. He has been training this winter at Gulfstream Park, and on Wednesday served notice that he is nearing a return with an eye-catching five-furlong work in 1:00 with jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.

"He'll probably be ready around the last week of February," said John Ward Jr., who trains Strong Contender for owner John Oxley. "He had a little crack in the back of a front shin, so we gave him time and just let it heal. He didn't need any surgery, just time. He got a chance to mature without us getting crazy."

Strong Contender is a powerful-looking son of Maria's Mon. He was born May 15, so he will not be 3 in calendar years until after this year's Kentucky Derby.

Ward's other good 2-year-old from last year, Dr. Pleasure, "will probably go back to breezing next week," he said.

"We're just working on building up his strength," Ward said. "We already know he has all the other attributes."

Both Ward and Oxley were at Gulfstream on Wednesday as Ward worked several of his top runners.

For All We Know, who has not raced since taking the Raven Run at Keeneland in October, worked five furlongs in 1:01.20. She has won four times in six starts, her lone losses coming in her only starts around two turns, the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama Stakes.

"We're going to keep her sprinting this year," said Ward, who said For All We Know would make her first start this year in the Grade 3, $100,000 Hurricane Bertie Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs on Feb. 18.

Miss Matched, who won the Arlington Oaks last summer, zipped five furlongs in 59.60 seconds in preparation for her first start since Sept. 30. Ward said she also would return on Feb. 18, in the Grade 3, $100,000 Sabin Handicap at 1 1/8 miles.

For All We Know and Miss Matched are both 4, as is Play Ballado. In an effort to keep all of them apart, and take advantage of the fact that Play Ballado was ready to run earlier this year, Play Ballado was sent to California, where she finished second in last month's El Encino Stakes and will make her next start in the Grade 2, $200,000 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 12. Both races are for straight 4-year-old fillies. Ward said jockey Edgar Prado would return for the mount.

"There were no races here for her," Ward said. "After her next race in California, she'll come back here. She'll probably spend the summer running in New York."

* Jockey Eddie Castro, who was thrown to the ground when Global Slew broke down in the third race Wednesday, was sore but otherwise not injured, but he took off his remaining mounts.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman