07/28/2003 11:00PM

Pace key for Our Last Novel

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CHICAGO - "If they let our horse get an easy lead, they'll have trouble catching him."

That was the word from trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer during the run-up up to the June 21 Cardinal Handicap, the 1 1/16-mile Arlington turf stakes that is part of the Prairie State Festival for Illinois-breds.

But Springer's horse, Our Last Novel, was not allowed an easy lead. Quite the contrary, Our Last Novel was dogged, badgered, and pushed into a pace that was too fast for him to have enough left at the finish. He finished a close fifth of 10, not surprising to the bettors that made him 19-1.

But, Our Last Novel has won before at long odds. To the delight of Springer, who enjoys bucking the odds, Our Last Novel scored at 64-1 in a first-level allowance race here last season.

Thursday, in Arlington's featured seventh race, Our Last Novel runs for Springer and owner Russell Reineman - yes, the one-time War Emblem connections - and the circumstances look much the same as in the Cardinal. Should Our Last Novel get clear from an inside post, he will prove difficult to catch. But, if potential pace players like Mt Waverly, Toomuch Chavez, Smoked Em, or Character Witness are aggressively handled early, they will compromise the chances of any speed horse and give an edge to the closers.

Enter another Illinois-bred, Scooter Roach, who outfinished Our Last Novel to be third in the Cardinal before finishing eighth here July 5 in the Stars and Stripes Handicap, a Grade 3 stakes at 1 1/2 miles. Owner Paul Cumberland and trainer Michelle Boyce claimed Scooter Roach for $35,000 last December, rested him over the winter and spring, and decided to point the 4-year-old gelding for stakes races on turf. It was a good plan, and Scooter Roach has been competitive but has failed to win in three starts. That is what class drops are for, and racing for a $62,500 claiming tag here, Scooter Roach could be in a winning spot.

There are plenty of others to consider, with this nine-furlong race having drawn a full field of 12 plus Baker Road, who was entered for main track only. Several have a fighting chance, like Smilin' Slew (four to five wide on both turns at Lone Star last out), Valid Prime (a solid $50,000 animal), and Mr Mississippi (a second-level allowance winner against 3-year-olds in his last).