09/09/2003 11:00PM

Questions surround Atto Mile contenders


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Questions abound regarding Sunday's seventh running of the $1 million Atto Mile, a one-turn turf race that has never been won by the favorite or a front-runner.

How will 2003 Canadian Triple Crown winner Wando fare in his first attempt against older opponents? Will California invaders Touch of the Blues and Sarafan put trainer Neil Drysdale back in the winner's circle in the Grade 1 event? How will Perfect Soul handle the turnback in distance from 1 1/4 miles? Can Chopinina duplicate her surprising second-place finish in the 2002 Atto? Will Soaring Free, Canada's top sprinter, extend his win streak to six races? Is 2001 Atto winner Numerous Times over the hill?

Wando is certainly the most talented and accomplished 3-year-old to have competed at Woodbine in years. He figures to be among the favorites Sunday, which will have many class handicappers licking their chops, looking for overlays in the race.

Wando beat up on Canadian-breds in the Triple Crown, competition which seemed suspect until Breeders' Stakes runner-up Shoal Water won the Grade 3 Saranac Handicap on closing day at Saratoga. But those who hastily labeled the Aug. 9 Breeders' as a key race had to be disappointed when third-place finisher Colorful Judgement could only manage third in a subsequent allowance, and when unplaced runners Parasail and Ballerina's Halo each failed to hit the board in his next start.

Wando might be at his best going a mile on the grass, but is worth playing against at a short price.

No trainer has sent out more live runners in the history of the Atto than California-based Drysdale. Drysdale took the 1998 running with Labeeb, and nearly captured the 1999 edition with Hawksley Hill, who was disqualified from first and placed fourth because jockey Pat Day's whip struck another rival in the stretch. Irish Prize, another Drysdale runner, was a close fourth in 2001, and Touch of the Blues was beaten only two lengths when fifth after being checked hard in deep stretch last year.

Touch of the Blues is coming off an overdue victory at Del Mar in the Wickerr Handicap, which is the same prep Riviera used before taking the 2000 Atto at 10-1. Touch of the Blues benefited from a good closing trip behind a sizzling pace in the Wickerr, and might be an underlay. His regular rider, Kent Desormeaux, won this race on Labeeb.

Sarafan is arguably more talented than his stablemate, and could offer fair betting value under Corey Nakatani, who landed two Breeders' Cup races at Woodbine in 1996.

Sarafan has been lightly raced since his busy 2002 campaign, during which he banked more than $2 million while placing in numerous Grade 1 events on two continents. He won his last race, his second start this year, beating just two opponents Aug. 22 in a restricted stakes at Del Mar, and wasn't all out to get the job done.

Horses coming off a tuneup in Southern California have finished first in three of the six runnings of the Atto, if you include Hawksley Hill, who was exiting a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar. Labeeb took the Grade 2 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood 13 weeks prior to his Atto score.

Geri won the inaugural Atto in 1997 (then called the Woodbine Mile) following a close fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Arlington Million, a pattern Perfect Soul will try to duplicate. Perfect Soul, the second-best long-distance turf specialist at Woodbine next to Strut the Stage, made a premature move on the far turn in the Arlington Million, yet was beaten only three-quarters of a length after looking the part of a winner at the head of the stretch.

Chopinina has been pointed toward the Atto since winning her first stakes Aug. 2 in the Royal North Handicap. Normally a front-runner, she came from off the pace in that six-furlong sprint, but could be on the lead at this longer distance, in the manner of her 2002 Atto trip. The presence of speedy Wake at Noon and Soaring Free could hinder her chances.

Soaring Free, who is undefeated since he was gelded last winter, has captured three consecutive turf stakes, while earning a 105 Beyer Figure on two occasions. He has versatile speed, and could have a dream trip just off the leaders, but he probably won't offer a great deal of betting value.

Numerous Times was unbeaten going into his memorable Atto tally, but has lost each of his six subsequent starts. He gave Soaring Free a run for his money when second after encountering traffic problems in the July 19 Ontario Jockey Stakes, and is coming off a fifth-place finish over yielding ground in the seven-furlong Play the King Handicap.

Atto Mile candidates

ChopininaA. FehrR. DosRamos
FreefourinternetJ. ScottR. Albarado
Moonshine HallT. ReinstedlerP. Day
Numerous TimesS. AttardG. Stevens
Perfect SoulR. AttfieldJ. Santos
SarafanN. DrysdaleC. Nakatani
Soaring FreeM. FrostadT. Kabel
Tap the AdmiralD. CarrollM. Luzzi
Touch of the BluesN. DrysdaleK. Desormeaux
Wake At NoonA. KatryanE. Ramsammy
WandoM. KeoghP. Husbands