03/04/2006 12:00AM

Proven Cat looks good, but trainer has doubt

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STICKNEY, Ill. - The trainer Mark Cristel reached downstate late last summer and came up with a gem. Cristel's operation, consisting mainly of Illinois-breds, is based in Chicago, but his family is from the southern part of Illinois, and his brother, Jim, trains at Fairmount Park. It was there last September that Proven Cat was claimed for a mere $10,000, and while she lost that day in a nonwinners-of-three conditioned race, Proven Cat has since proved up.

Cristel brought her to Hawthorne, ran her back at the same claiming level, and Proven Cat won by almost 10 lengths. Stretched out to two turns, Proven Cat won an entry-level Illinois-bred allowance by more than three lengths, finished second at the next statebred allowance condition, and then cleared it in a five-length blowout. Cristel moved her into open company on Jan. 1, and Proven Cat won a nonwinners-of-three allowance with a $35,000 claiming option by more than five lengths.

"There are some horses that just like Hawthorne, and I think she likes it more than other tracks," Cristel said.

She does indeed. And because Cristel entered Proven Cat for the $35,000 claiming option in her last start, he preserved her third allowance condition, and it's at that level that Proven Cat returns in Tuesday's featured eighth race. She has eight rivals in the six-furlong race, and has worked three times in recent weeks for her first start of this meet. And yet Cristel would not be at all surprised if his stable star is defeated.

"To be honest, I think running long is her best distance," Cristel said. "I'd like to run her six furlongs, and then there's a route race coming up in the next [condition] book that I think would be the best spot for her."

But if not Proven Cat, then who? I Love Lisa won at this class level last spring, but hasn't raced since May 15, though her trainer, Richard Hazelton, is off to a good start here. Lucky Gambler is a four-time Hawthorne winner, but is another route horse in a sprint race. She's Wild, on the other hand, lost to Proven Cat in a two-turn race here Jan. 1, but is a better sprinter, and has a recent start at Oaklawn Park. Silver Fortune won by three here in a $25,000 claimer last Dec. 22.

* Race 9 also is worth following. The lightly raced Holy City was an impressive winner here Feb. 26, and steps up to run in a second-level Illinois-bred allowance race. Yesterday Evening, twice second at the class level here last fall, looks like his chief rival.