08/26/2004 11:00PM

Saratoga shipper no sure thing

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CHICAGO - The 2-year-old gelding Departing Now finished fifth of 11 in the Grade 2 Sanford late last month at Saratoga, but he is no lock to win the $50,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes on Sunday at Arlington Park.

At least he will get a chance to run in it. Local horsemen with 2-year-old fillies were not so lucky, as the Top Flight Stakes, scheduled for last Friday, had to be scrapped for lack of sufficient entries. But there are

seven horses in the seven-furlong Spectacular Bid, a prep for the Sept. 19 Arlington-Washington Futurity, and the field is surprisingly strong.

, twice a winner in four starts, should be favored, but maiden winners Rocky River and Santana Strings and stakes winners Smoke Smoke Smoke and Expect Wings will make him work.

Departing Now romped at first asking in an April 2-year-old race at Keeneland, running 4 1/2 furlongs in 52 seconds - racehorse time. But his stakes debut, in the June 4 Flash Stakes at Belmont, was a bust, with Departing Now staggering home fourth of five, beaten almost 15 lengths. A month later, Departing Now won a Prairie Meadows stakes for fun, earning his trip to Saratoga.

In the Sanford, Departing Now broke from the rail on a day when the racetrack appeared heavily slanted to outside paths.

"I think the rail was dead that day," said trainer Becky Maker. "There was just a little hole for him, and he really made room for himself. That's unusual for a 2-year-old."

At Arlington one day before the Sanford, was bet down to odds of 4-5 in his career debut and quickly showed why, winning by three lengths. The biggest fight he had that day was with jockey Chris Emigh, who battled to slow down the colt early in the race.

"I'd love to see him be a little more relaxed in his races," trainer Don Von Hemel said.

Rocky River bled "just a shade," according to Von Hemel, and adds Lasix.

debuted in a $50,000 maiden claimer three days after Rocky River, but ran even faster, going 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:05. Weeks before, Shamrock Hill Farm and trainer Tom Tomillo had purchased Santana Strings privately from the Illinois horseman Moises Yanez.

"I thought he was decent, but I didn't know he would be as decent as this," Tomillo said. "I think we gave him enough time between races and he won't bounce."