08/05/2004 12:00AM

Sea o'Erin boils down to just two horses


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - There are 11 horses entered in the Sea o'Erin Breeders' Cup Mile Handicap on Saturday at Arlington Park, but if form holds, the race boils down to just two: multiple stakes winner .

Time to take sides.

Their trainers, Mike Stidham and Steve Asmussen, are somewhat friendly rivals. The horses are divergent. If consistency and established class is your dish, try the Asmussen-trained Warleigh, who has won eight times on grass and nearly always shows up. Herculated is a riskier proposition, but perhaps a more brilliant racehorse. He has made just five starts, and his career path arched sharply upward - until he finished 10th in the Grade 2 Dixie on May 15 at Pimlico, his most recent race.

Before the Dixie, Herculated had won three straight allowance races at Fair Grounds, and his close, closing second in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz at the end of that meet gave backbone to the rising form. The Dixie was not a case of Herculated wading in too deep. A hard grass course at Pimlico had rattled his hooves, and he came out of the race with sore feet. With heavy rain this week, Arlington's grass will be good-to-firm for the one-mile Sea o'Erin, and Herculated, Stidham said, has breezed well on this course.

But so has Warleigh.

"He's training really well there," Asmussen said of Warleigh. "I'm excited about running him."

It was just under a year ago that Asmussen and owner Ro Parra snapped Warleigh out of a $100,000 claiming race at Saratoga, and Warleigh has proven well worth the money. The first start after the claim, Warleigh won a $100,000 stakes by more than eight lengths. Since then, racing only in stakes, he has two wins, two seconds, and a third in the Dixie, far ahead of Herculated.

"He's a good, solid Lord at War turf horse, and that's what we were hoping to get," Asmussen said. "He has the pedigree to be durable, and he is that."

Off his good run in the Dixie, Warleigh was a 4-5 favorite to win the Dallas Turf Cup at Lone Star, but he flattened out in the stretch run and finished fourth.

"I thought he should have won," Asmussen said.

But now, Warleigh is fresh and ready to go, and he might prove the controlling speed Saturday. Even so, Herculated can employ stalking tactics when required and can keep Warleigh in his sights. In the end, it should come down to these two.