09/28/2006 12:00AM

Pair of strangers might be favorites


Who knew that a rematch between the one-two finishers in the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., would come - drum roll please - at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, Ill.?

For that matter, who knew that Saturday's Gold Cup, a Grade 2, $500,000 race that has produced horses as good as Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, could come down to those one-two finishers, Flamethrowintexan and Papi Chullo?

And to be honest, how many Midwest racing fans even know who Papi Chullo and Flamethrowintexan are?

It's that kind of year for the Gold Cup, which for whatever reason has been eclipsed this weekend by the $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. Many are hailing Turfway's synthetic racing surface as racing's future. The track at Hawthorne is sand-based, safe, and extremely demanding in terms of fitness.

"His first day galloping here, he came back blowing, and I wondered what was going on," said Greg Norman, who owns Papi Chullo. "Then, yesterday, I went to the races and saw how slow the times were. I thought, 'Do we have him fit enough for this racetrack?' "

Promising as a 3-year-old, Papi Chullo is developing nicely at 4. Trained by Buenaventura Vargas, Papi Chullo was a sharp second-level allowance winner at Hollywood Park in his first 2006 start, finished third in the Grade 2 San Diego, just missed catching Flamethrowintexan in the Aug. 20 Longacres Mile, and less than two weeks after that showed up at Saratoga, where he was a fourth of 10 in the Grade 1 Woodward.

Saturday, in the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup, Papi Chullo will have five or six rivals, depending on whether It's No Joke starts here or in Turfway's race. Besides Flamethrowintexan, those expected are A.P. Arrow, Kid Grindstone, Nolan's Cat, and Summer Book.

Papi Chullo stayed in New York after the Woodward and breezed twice on Saratoga's training track before shipping to Chicago. Papi Chullo looked like he might win the Woodward a quarter-mile out, but lacked a final punch.

"I think you're going to see a dramatic improvement in this horse," Norman said. "I think last time he was one race short of running a winning race. He just got a little bit tired."

Flamethrowintexan shipped here earlier than Papi Chullo, coming from trainer Jim Penney's Washington base to breeze once at Hawthorne. A winner in six of his last 10 starts, Flamethrowintexan is purely a front-end type, and his early speed should put him on a clear lead Saturday.

"He's so quick out of the gate, but he really is very controllable," said Kay Cooper, Penney's daughter, who traveled to Chicago with Flamethrowintexan.

Flamethrowintexan has won twice over 1 1/8 miles, but has never tried 1 1/4 miles. "We'll test him and find out if he can do it," said Cooper.

A.P. Arrow, trained by Todd Pletcher, will get the Gold Cup distance, but probably has to run the best race of his career to win. Second in the Super Derby last year, A.P. Arrow won his season debut in a second-level allowance at Saratoga on Aug. 19.

Locally based Kid Grindstone has won 3 of 5 this year, but moves up in class. Nolan's Cat has a come-from-the-clouds style that so far this meet has been ineffective. And the longshot Summer Book is trained by Niall O'Callaghan, who sent out 34-1 Ascertain to win the Kentucky Cup Turf on Tuesday.