05/13/2005 12:00AM

Serious horses in Ward's Illinois string

Owner John Oxley (left) and trainer John Ward have several talented fillies at Arlington.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Trainer John Ward is about 100 percent Kentucky. He was raised in the state, the son of a horseman, and operates a farm located just out the back gate of Keeneland Race Course. In 2001, he trained Monarchos to a win in Kentucky's most famous contribution to horse racing, the Derby.

But this season, Ward is trying something different and coming to Illinois. He requested summer stalls at Arlington and was given about 20 of them by the track's director of racing, Frank Gabriel.

"We sent some quality up there," Ward said when reached by phone this week.

Ward's talk is not merely public relations fluff. Brand-name trainers have regularly sent second-stringers to race during the summer at Arlington; D. Wayne Lukas, who is gone this season, did just that in 2004. But Ward's current Arlington string, overseen by the former head trainer Sally Schu, includes horses with proven high class, in particular a blockbuster group of young fillies.

One of them, Miss Matched, was to have run in an overnight stakes race here on Saturday, but Miss Matched might not even be in the same league as Seek a Star and For All We Know. All three are owned by Ward's primary client, the Texas oilman John Oxley, and Seek a Star already has proved her class, winning the May 5 La Troienne at Churchill by almost three lengths. Third and fourth in the first two starts of her career, Seek a Star has since won three in a row, all by open lengths, and Ward intends to send her to Belmont for the Grade 1 Acorn on June 4. For All We Know could run in an Arlington allowance race, but she, too, could wind up in New York for the Grade 1 Mother Goose on June 25. For All We Know, a $550,000 2-year-old buy in 2004, has won her first two starts, beating the hot filly Talented in a Gulfstream Park maiden race, and coming back to trounce first-level allowance horses at Keeneland.

"Arlington's a very easy spot for us to ship to New York," said Ward.

Also stabled here are "a really nice bunch of 2-year-olds you'll see in the middle of the summer," Ward said. Included in the group is a Maria's Mon colt who at $800,000 topped Keeneland's April 2-year-old in training sale.

"We're tickled to be up there," said Ward.

The feeling is mutual.

Nicole's Dream running well, but where to run?

Nicole's Dream is a 5-year-old mare who has made 34 starts in a career dating back to 2002. And according to the man who should know her best, trainer Larry Rivelli, Nicole's Dream has never been better.

Tough to argue given the results of the $112,000 Mamzelle Stakes on May 5 at Churchill Downs. Nicole's Dream sprang out to an early lead and coasted to a comfortable win, running five furlongs on turf in 56.40 seconds.

"I thought it looked like she had a false start," Rivelli said. "She's quick, but that's the fastest she's ever broken. That race was over when the bell rang."

Nicole's Dream finished seventh as the favorite when she made her first start of the year on March 27 at Gulfstream, but that wasn't a surprise.

"She always throws in a clunker first start of the year," said Rivelli, who trains Nicole's Dream for Dare to Dream stable partnership. "First time off the layoff, she trains good, but for whatever reason she doesn't show that speed. But I told the Dare to Dream guys she'd be tough to beat all year."

The problem for Nicole's Dream is finding races to suit her particular talent - running short on grass. In turf sprints, she has won 12 of 21 starts with 3 seconds. But asked what Nicole's Dream's major goal for the season would be, Rivelli said: "That was just it."

Indeed, the Mamzelle's purse is just about top-of-the-line for Nicole's Dream's specialty. Rivelli is dead set on stretching her out to a mile, and doesn't want to ship internationally for fear of ruining his horse. So, Nicole's Dream goes back to work in The Very One Handicap, a $75,000 stakes May 20 at Pimlico.

Not much pace in nine-furlong feature

The races filled fairly well for the first two days of the Arlington meet, but there were fewer entries for Sunday's card, with just 65 entered in nine races - an average of 7.3 horses per race.

The featured eighth, a third-level allowance with a $75,000 claiming option, drew only six horses, included two from the barn of trainer Hugh Robertson. Still, the race, carded for 1 1/8 miles on dirt, is fairly interesting.

Handicappers quickly will notice the paucity of speed here; nobody in the race is a confirmed front-runner, though jockey Early Fires, who rides Strength Within, is liable to make any horse into a pace threat. If Fires is not sending, noted front-end rider Randy Meier might be, and his mount, Keepitinthebag, does have the speed to make the front in a paceless field.

He also, somewhat surprisingly, has the talent to win a race like this. Generally a midlevel claimer whose wins were rare, Keepitinthebag got good late last fall and stayed good this spring. Owned by Avers Wexler and trained by Charlie Vinci, Keepitinthebag won two straight on dirt during the Hawthorne meet, the second of which was an easy score over second-level allowance horses. He was a decent third to the sharp Fort Prado when racing on turf last time out, and should appreciate returning to the main track.

* Humor at Last, one of the better Illinois-bred 3-year-olds, has been turned out for a freshening following his second-place finish in the April 30 Land of Lincoln Stakes. Trainer Tony Mitchell said Humor at Last could return in time for the June 25 Springfield Stakes.