08/17/2004 11:00PM

Rise has been quick for Salty Sailor

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Nate Ruffolo and trainer Michele Boyce took a chance on a horse nobody wanted, and they're finally being rewarded. A Salt Lake yearling who had what Boyce calls "a funky knee" commanded just $8,000 at the 2001 Keeneland September sales, and now that sum looks like a bargain.

is the name of the horse Ruffolo and Boyce now proudly run under their Cherrywood Racing partnership, and when the $37,000 feature is run at Arlington Park on Friday, Salty Sailor will bring perhaps the best form among the 10 horses entered. From 12 career starts, Salty Sailor has been in the money nine times, including four wins, and has earned nearly $100,000.

"He's paying us back in spades," said Boyce.

A 4-year-old gelding, Salty Sailor could have been claimed for $62,500 in his last start, a July 25 race that carried the identical optional claiming conditions under which the eighth-race feature will be contested Friday. Ridden by E.T. Baird, the only jockey ever to ride him in the afternoon, Salty Sailor prevailed in that last race at 18-1 while earning a 97 Beyer Speed Figure.

Because Salty Sailor is still eligible for a third-level allowance condition, Boyce is protecting him Friday by declining the claiming tag. She says she believes Salty Sailor has overcome his physical problems and once again will prove formidable in what shapes up as a very competitive group.

"We've kind of nursed him along and watched him develop into a very game racehorse," said Boyce. "It's been great to see him come along the way he has."

Besides Salty Sailor, who will start from post 3 under Baird, the other logical contenders in the feature include , who earned a 99 Beyer in his latest start and will turn back from a mile to seven furlongs Friday; Formal Decree, who has been knocking heads with the likes of Sea of Tranquility and Apt to Be in recent starts; and Manitowish, who returns to his favored surface after being outrun in a recent turf sprint.

Also entered are Intern, Fighting Indians, He's Hammered, Iceplosion, and Liepers Fork, who is the field's lone 3-year-old.

Nine other races are carded here Friday, when first post is 3 p.m. Central. Highlights of the undercard include a $33,000 allowance sprint (race 3), a statebred allowance (race 7), and a starter-allowance turf route (race 9).