08/31/2003 11:00PM

Sky Classic next up for Strut the Stage

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Strut the Stage always has threatened to become a major Grade 1 player in the North American turf division, but has come up just short.

But there are significant signs that Strut the Stage, at age 5, is ready to take on that role this season after passing his latest audition with flying colors last Saturday at Woodbine.

The occasion was the Niagara Breeders' Cup Handicap, a Grade 2 race over 1 1/2 miles of turf, in which Strut the Stage won in a strong field that included six United States invaders.

The win was Strut the Stage's second in three starts this year. He defeated Perfect Soul here in the July 20 Chinese Cultural Centre after finishing second to Perfect Soul in the June 15 King Edward at 1 1/8 miles. Both races were Grade 2 turf stakes.

"He's a better horse than people think," said Mark Frostad, who trains Strut the Stage for Sam-Son Farm. "Right now, he and Perfect Soul are two of the best turf horses in North America."

Perfect Soul also has started once since the Chinese Cultural Centre and finished fifth, beaten just three-quarters of a length, in the Aug. 16 Arlington Million over 1 1/4 miles of grass.

Roger Attfield, who trains Perfect Soul for Charles Fipke, now has his sights set on the Sept. 14 Atto Mile, a race in which Strut the Stage finished a close seventh last year.

Strut the Stage won't be turning back to a mile. In two starts at a mile last fall he was beaten 2 3/4 lengths finishing seventh in the Atto Mile and 4 1/2 lengths when finishing fourth next time out in the Grade 1 Keeneland Shadwell Turf Mile.

"I cut him back to a mile a few times, and it didn't really work," said Frostad.

"He needed farther to go than that - he needs a mile and an eighth and up."

Frostad also noted that Strut the Stage competed at six different racetracks in his eight 2002 starts, and never raced in one location twice in succession.

"He didn't really like traveling that much," Frostad said. "I was shipping him quite a bit, and he sort of flattened out halfway through the year. He wasn't really happy."

After an easy winter in Florida, Strut the Stage has stayed home this season.

The next logical step for Strut the Stage would be the $200,000 Sky Classic, which will be run this year on Sept. 28 as the final local prep for the Canadian International.

If Strut the Stage remains on a roll, Frostad then would be forced to choose between the Canadian International on Oct. 19 and the Breeders' Cup Turf, which will be run at Santa Anita just six days later.

Woodbine had positioned the International and its companion feature, the E.P. Taylor Stakes for fillies and mares, as potential Breeders' Cup preps while running the races in late September for the past two years.

This year, however, the Canadian International and E.P. Taylor were moved back to their former mid-October positions.

No prep needed for 'Brass'

Another familiar face was in the winner's circle here Sunday as Brass in Pocket, a 4-year-old filly trained by Bob Tiller, recorded her fourth stakes victory of the year in the $173,375 Seaway.

Brass in Pocket had not raced since winning the July 13 Kamar, having missed the prep for the Seaway after the card was canceled due to last month's blackout, and Tiller had been concerned over the layoff.

"I'd been looking to run her in the prep," said Tiller. "But everything turned out well; maybe it was a blessing. She was a happy, fit mare, obviously."

Tiller and owner Frank DiGiulio are uncertain of their next move with Brass in Pocket as her next appropriate stakes spot here would be the $125,000 Ontario Fashion, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares Oct. 25.

Baker's two fillies prep for stakes

Trainer Reade Baker had a sensational weekend, winning with four of the five horses he ran.

Baker also was a contented observer here Sunday morning when Silver Bird and Ontheqt, a pair of promising Canadian-bred 2-year-old fillies who reside under his shed row, worked six furlongs in company on the main track.

Silver Bird got the better of her workmate, finishing in 1:15.60 under jockey Jim McAleney while Ontheqt was clocked in 1:15.80 under rider Frank Todd.

Both were impressive winners of their only starts, with Silver Bird scoring over 5 1/2 furlongs Aug. 2 and Ontheqt at five furlongs Aug. 8.

Silver Bird is headed for Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 Natalma, a one-mile turf race for 2-year-old fillies.

Ontheqt, owned by Baker in partnership with his wife, Janis Maine, also is nominated to the Natalma but is being pointed for the $150,000 Fanfreluche, a six-furlong race for Canadian-bred 2-year-old fillies here Oct. 26.

Wando works quickly on dirt

Wando continued his preparations for the Atto Mile here Sunday, zipping four furlongs in a bullet 46.60 seconds on the main track. Patrick Husbands was aboard for the move, in which Wando tracked regular workmate Last Answer before putting him away through the lane.

Coming off a Canadian Triple Crown capped by his victory here in the Aug. 9 Breeders' over 1 1/2 miles of turf, Wando will be cutting back in distance and facing older rivals in the Grade 1, $1 million Atto Mile.

"I wanted to sharpen him up," said Mike Keogh, who trains Wando for owner-breeder Gustav Schickedanz.

Keogh elected to drill Wando on the main track because he believed the training track turf course was too hard after sending out a couple of workers there Friday.