01/20/2004 12:00AM

Rapid Proof nears peak form

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Sometimes, very late at night, a horse trainer might lie awake imagining a barn full of Mr. Eds. Yes, the constant chatter from stalls might include an endless litany of complaints and requests. But how great would it be to have a horse actually tell you what hurt, how things were feeling out there on the racetrack?

Take . His trainer, Hal Wiggins, could tell Rapid Proof was losing his form last summer. Also, there was the issue of why Rapid Proof kept running up to horses in the stretch of his races, but not going past them.

"He had kind of tailed off on us," Wiggins said Tuesday morning, reached by phone at Oaklawn Park. "We were having trouble finding out what the problem was. The riders in the morning said he felt fine, and in the afternoon, nobody felt like there was anything wrong."

Finally, veterinarians made a diagnosis. Rapid Proof had a stifle problem, and looking back, Wiggins thinks the nagging injury had interrupted the horse's development. Laid off since July, Rapid Proof returned to the races Dec. 27 at Fair Grounds, closing strongly in the stretch and finishing second in a quickly run one-mile turf race to a nice colt named Herculated. Wiggins strongly feels Rapid Proof needed the race after the long break, and believes Rapid Proof is ready to show something close to his best when he starts in Fair Grounds's featured ninth race Thursday, another second-level, one-mile grass allowance.

"This race really ought to tell us if he's ready to take that next step up into stakes company," Wiggins said. "I was very pleased with his last race. He might have hung a little bit in the stretch, but I thought it showed he was back on form."

That would make Rapid Proof tough to defeat Thursday, since he was competitive as a 3-year-old with graded stakes horses. But there are plenty of alternatives to the likely favorite. Two others entered in the race, American Son and Canaan Land, are trained by Mike Stidham, who beat Rapid Proof last out with Herculated.

Canaan Land, back with allowance horses after a brief dip into the claiming ranks, was relegated to the also-eligible list, but needs just one scratch to draw in. He is more advanced than American Son, but American Son, a recent entry-level allowance winner, has plenty of potential, and the nine-furlong distance of Thursday's race plays to his strength - stamina.

Bettors also should consider . Entered under the race's $40,000 claiming option, Smilin' Slew takes a meaningful class drop off a pair of near misses against open $50,000 claimers.