11/07/2003 1:00AM

Rare dud by Nicole's Dream seen as a fluke


CHICAGO - A few strides into Clark County Handicap on Oct. 16 at Keeneland, jockey E.T. Baird sensed Nicole's Dream was out of her comfort zone. Nicole's Dream stayed in contention, just behind a blistering pace, for three furlongs, but Baird was right. She quickly faded in the stretch run and wound up eighth, her worst performance in an excellent season.

Too bad, because Nicole's Dream, a turf-sprint specialist, is a much better horse than that, and she deserved to have her ability showcased at a major racing venue. Sunday, she returns to Chicago racing, and reverting to her typical form will land Nicole's Dream in the winner's circle after the $40,000-added Wooden Star Stakes, a five-furlong grass race at Hawthorne.

Purchased privately in August, Nicole's Dream had reeled off three straight wins - and set a turf-course record at Arlington - before her Kentucky flop. What Baird felt there, trainer Larry Rivelli firmly believes, was Nicole's Dream's dislike for Keeneland's grass course.

"That track is so much different than what she had been running over," Rivelli said. "I'm hoping that's what it was. She's never missed a beat training."

Ten other fillies were entered in the Wooden Star, but none can match Nicole's Dream on anything close to her best day. Her main rivals are Cauy, who finished in front of Nicole's Dream in the Clark County, and Valiant Anna, a sharp winner of four straight, but a filly unaccustomed to sprinting.

Roberts goes full speed ahead

A trainer stabling at a racetrack for the first time often takes things slowly at first, getting used to the track surface, the competition, and the racing office. That is not the Stanley Roberts way.

Spending his first winter in Chicago, Roberts already has 54 starters at the meet, fifth-most among trainers here, and through Thursday he had gone a respectable 7-4-4 with them.

"Just training really doesn't pay a whole lot," Roberts said. "You've got to run."

Roberts runs hard all year, every year, and so far this season his horses have made 553 starts, winning 80 times. Roberts has had solid meets at Oaklawn, Prairie Meadows, and now Hawthorne.

"We've had a pretty good season for country boys that don't know what they're doing," Roberts said.

Self-mocking humor comes naturally for the 62-year-old Roberts, who has been training full-time for 14 years. "I kind of just fly by the seat of my pants," he said.

But there is method to his madness. With a 75-stall farm, complete with a training track, in Arkansas, Roberts can shuttle horses on and off the racetrack as their form rises and falls. "If a horse gets a little sour or sore, I can give them a rest down there," he said.

The Hawthorne racing surface took Roberts by surprise, and he said only now are his horses starting to adapt.

"The racetrack when I first got here was a little deeper than where I had been, at Louisiana Downs and Prairie Meadows. I was a little short at first, but they're getting fit now," he said.

Local bettors too are growing accustomed to Roberts's presence, and they may see more of him next year.

"I'll probably be back," he said. "I might go to Arlington next year. We're kind of testing the waters right now."

Surgery for Liz on Polk Street

Liz on Polk Street, an impressive debut winner last weekend, came out of her race with a chip in her knee and is out until next year.

By A.P. Indy and out of the Grade 1 winner Silver Maiden, Liz on Polk Street has ability to go with her pedigree, and her connections, owner Frank Calabrese and trainer Wayne Catalano, have high hopes for her.

"Everyone was disappointed, but if it's going to happen, this is a good time of year for it to happen," Catalano said. "She was never lame or anything. She just had a little heat in her knee, we X-rayed it, and found a little chip. It's in a good spot. It'll be plucked out and she'll be fine next year. She'll be out 90 days, if that."

Vitek gets a trial

Catalano and Pat Cuccurullo, Calabrese's second trainer, have begun giving jockey Justin Vitek regular business, but Catalano said Vitek shouldn't be considered the stable jockey.

"Right now we're just trying some things," said Catalano. "He's riding some horses right now, but not all of them. We were looking for somebody who's light and who's right. We're trying something a little different, and we'll feel our way out."