03/31/2004 12:00AM

Pure American coming to hand at right time

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CHICAGO - The dirt Pure American kicked up while demolishing eight entry-level allowance opponents hardly had settled back down onto Oaklawn Park's racetrack when Grant Forster began planning. Finally, Pure American had translated his ability into a standout performance. Now it was time to shop for a big race.

"With 3-year-olds this time of year, you want to give them a shot," said Forster, who trains Pure American for Al and Sandee Kirkwood, the gelding's owners and breeders.

Pure American's shot comes Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby. Forster targeted the race less than a week after Pure American's eight-length allowance romp, and to get ahead of the curve, he sent Pure American to Hawthorne some three weeks in advance. That puts him in a different category than the other nine expected ship-ins for the Illinois Derby; they began arriving last weekend, and will trickle in through Friday.

"We thought the Illinois Derby would be our best shot with the big boys," Forster said. "Four to five weeks between starts is good for him. He's not a real robust horse, and he's not a great shipper. He can be looking around during his races. I thought it'd do him well to settle in. Maybe it's an advantage over the others coming in."

Forster has flown in to watch Pure American's local works - breezes that have turned heads here. On March 21, Pure American worked five furlongs in 59.40 seconds, best of 33 works at the distance. Eight days later, he went in 59 seconds, best of 25 five-furlong works. Those are sizzling times that strongly suggest Pure American has taken to Hawthorne's sometimes-tricky track surface.

Whether that makes Pure American good enough is unclear. Pure American won a sprint maiden race last fall at Churchill. His route and 2004 debut, a fourth behind Gradepoint at Fair Grounds, was useful, but with blinkers on for his next start, Pure American fought his rider and faded off a fast pace in a start Forster figured he would win.

"The blinkers on was an experiment gone awry," Forster said. "He sold out. He fought with the rider the whole way."

A month later, it was blinkers off and Greta Kuntzweiler on Pure American, and in Forster's words, "He ran a smasher."

The competition Saturday is solid but not overwhelming. Pollard's Vision, third in the Louisiana Derby, and the unbeaten Song of the Sword remain the expected favorites. Suave, shipping from Kentucky on Friday, also will get support. The others expected to run are Chrome Soldier, Dancefortyniner, Farnum Alley, Kilgowan, O.K. Mikie, Skipaslew, and White Mountain Boy.

Mystery Giver back with Block

Mystery Giver, winner of the $500,000 Mervin Muniz on March 21 at Fair Grounds, has fled the limelight. Fifth in the country with $375,000 in earnings this year, Mystery Giver has hunkered down on the gritty Hawthorne backstretch. There he will stay until shipping to Churchill Downs for his next scheduled start, the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Handicap on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

"If everything proceeds along good, and he bounces back from the last one, that would be the plan," said trainer Chris Block. "Five weeks between starts plays well."

Mystery Giver has rejoined Block's barn after wintering at Fair Grounds for the third season with trainer Richie Scherer. Block, whose family owns Mystery Giver, remains in Illinois year-round, and when Mystery Giver is out of his stable, Block hands full control to Scherer. He did not even travel to New Orleans for the Muniz, Mystery Giver's best career win, watching instead on an offtrack betting monitor.

"I thought about going down this time," Block said. "But then I thought, 'Why?' What am I going to do down there? It's Richie's deal. I watched it on the same TV as I did all the others."

Now Block's association is daily and hands-on, and he thinks Mystery Giver has a good chance to follow through on his excellent winter. At 6, the long-bodied, light-framed Mystery Giver finally has grown up and learned to be a racehorse.

"Even last year at this time, we were still trying to throttle him down the first quarter of a mile," Block said. "Now he comes right back to the rider."

'Crazy' makes first start for Cuccurullo

Beautiful Crazy was 36-1 when she won the Hawthorne Oaks by a head last fall for owner Frank Calabrese and trainer Wayne Catalano. She will be a fraction of that price here in Friday's featured first race as she makes her first start for Calabrese's latest trainer, Pat Cuccurullo.

Cuccurullo has picked up where Catalano left off, with 13 wins from only 34 starters so far this meet. Beautiful Crazy, one of the few high-end horses in the stable, has only five opponents in this third-level allowance with optional claimer at one mile and 70 yards.

Beautiful Crazy makes her first start since Jan. 31, and is a closer in a short field lacking speed. Princess Paster is the lone pace element proven at this level in dirt routes, and is well positioned for an ideal trip. Kitty's Mission, another stretch-runner, also appears to have found a good spot.