11/01/2005 12:00AM

Six-year-old is fragile, but very fast

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - has racked up the kind of numbers that would seem to make him very tough to beat in the Thursday feature at Churchill Downs: 8 for 20 overall, 5 for 10 at Churchill, and 2 for 2 when he has raced for a claiming tag.

Moreover, Strength and Honor has accumulated his enviable record, and $287,370 in career earnings, primarily when racing in classy company. Alas, there is a hitch: The 6-year-old Strength and Honor "might be the most popular patient in the history of" the Rood and Riddle veterinary clinic, according to trainer Chuck Simon, and there is no way of knowing when his nagging problems might finally preclude him from being competitive.

"He has had surgery on his ankle twice and on his throat three times," said Simon. "He has always come back good, and he sure has been working well for this race Thursday. But you never know for sure when a horse comes back from a layoff like this."

Strength and Honor, with Craig Perret to ride, will break from post 2 in the ninth race, a $59,200 optional claiming sprint. Unraced since late January, when he faded to seventh in a small stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, Strength and Honor has posted a series of rapid workouts in preparation for his return, including a three-furlong drill Monday in 34.20 seconds.

Besides the lengthy layoff, there is also the question of how Strength and Honor - who is entered to be claimed Thursday for $80,000 - might deal with Tricky Devil, a similarly speedy 4-year-old who drew post 5 with Gary Stevens named to ride. If ever there was a fast pace likely to develop in a horse race, this looks like the spot.

"That's something I can't control," said Simon. "My horse pretty much goes - especially when he's fresh."

Two national powerhouse stables will join forces when Sister Swank, trained by Steve Asmussen, and River Belle, trained by Todd Pletcher, are coupled for wagering purposes in the co-featured seventh race, a $68,300 turf allowance for fillies and mares.

Heiligbrodt Stables is the reason the fillies are paired in what looks like a formidable entry. Heiligbrodt is a part-owner in River Belle, winner of the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere here last fall, and the full owner of Sister Swank, a graded winner who has earned nearly $385,000.