08/28/2003 12:00AM

Speed duel looks inevitable for 'Nicholas,' Riddlesdown


CHICAGO - Handicappers face this puzzle all too often. There are two proven speed horses in a race. If both run as usual, they will flame out and set the race up for a closer. But in reality, the race rarely plays out in such obvious fashion. Horsemen and jockeys, after all, can read form, too. Finer distinctions are required, such as who is the speed of the speed, and which rider is more likely to send.

But how in the wide world of pace duels do Captain Nicholas and Riddlesdown not hook up on the lead in Arlington's featured eighth race on Saturday? Both horses have past-performance lines riddled with the number "1," and they break from inside posts, right next to each other. Unless one of the pair suddenly develops a new style, the feature, an excellent $45,000 overnight handicap, could fall right into the lap of deep closer Act of War.

If he is not good enough, Roxinho or Sharbayan should be, and both those horses are proven over this race's 1 1/2-mile distance.

Gene Cilio, Act of War's trainer, thinks his horse will thrive at 12 furlongs. "I think the farther this horse runs, the better," Cilio said, days after Act of War had come flying late to finish a close fifth in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Handicap, a Grade 3 race here July 26.

In fact, Cilio is using Saturday's race as something of a prep for the $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Handicap, another 12-furlong race, this one over the rolling European-style grass course at Kentucky Downs. Like his 5-year-old compatriot Mystery Giver, Act of War is an Illinois-bred who is proving capable of competing in open stakes. He beat Mystery Giver and eight others to win the statebred-restricted Cardinal Handicap here in June, and he was hampered by a lack of pace in the Arlington Handicap.

Captain Nicholas and Riddlesdown should give Act of War the early splits he needs, though Riddlesdown, a Grade 3 winner over the winter, is a threat to keep going. He makes his first start in six months but has run well after layoffs before.

Roxinho, a Brazilian-bred horse, has been a solid turf distance runner all year, though he has not won since last season. Both he and Sharbayan, a Wally Dollase-trained horse in from California, have run well at 1 1/2 miles, and both will be flattered if the race plays out as it appears on paper.

Ethan Man returns with win

Ethan Man successfully returned from a long layoff with a one-length win here in Wednesday's eighth race.

Out of action since the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in April 2002, Ethan Man won a six-furlong optional claimer over the sharp sprinter King Cielo. Since his last appearance, Ethan Man had undergone surgery to remove a bone chip in his ankle, and was gelded.

Trainer Pat Byrne said he was pleased with the comeback race. Ethan Man was a bit unsettled in the paddock and post parade, but he quickly came back to jockey Rene Douglas out of the starting gate and moved up well when asked to run coming off the turn.

"Rene rode him with a lot of confidence," Byrne said. "I was pleased with the outcome. It was a good first step back."

Byrne said Ethan Man would run back either in the Marfa Stakes at Turfway Park or the Phoenix Breeders' Cup at Keeneland.

Ethan Man's six-furlong time of 1:11.48 was pedestrian, but that is how things went all day Thursday. The track played as slowly as it has on any day this meet, and an east wind blew into the horses' faces as they raced on the backstretch.

Javier Barajas, Arlington's trackman, said he had not treated the surface differently this week.

"The pad gets so hard, we try on the dark days to loosen it up so they don't go too fast," Barajas said. "There hasn't been as much sun, and it didn't get packed down as much as it usually does. It's not baking as much."

Workout times were relatively slow Thursday, but Barajas said he expected the surface to speed up Thursday and Friday.

Victory Light will miss Cradle

Victory Light, one of the more impressive 2-year-old maiden winners at this meet, will miss the Cradle Stakes on Monday at River Downs because of a minor illness. Victory Light came up with a cough, forcing him to miss a bit of training and prompting trainer Elliott Walden to alter his schedule.

Walden said Victory Light could run next in the Arlington-Washington Futurity or the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park.

* Rene Douglas will miss Saturday's races here. Douglas is traveling to Woodbine to ride Better Talk Now in the Niagara Handicap.