09/06/2006 11:00PM

Storybook cast in Pucker Up


CHICAGO - There is the soap-opera tale of Palace Rumor, the only horse among eight in the barn of trainer Burl McBride not killed or badly injured when a tornado hit Ellis Park last summer. There is California-based trainer Jim Cassidy's annual Arlington invasion; he won the Pucker Up Stakes two years ago with Ticker Tape, finished second in 2005 with Singhalese, and is back with Soothsay. And there is this question: How good is the unbeaten local filly Vacare, who won a pair of Arlington turf races this summer with breathtaking ease?

And those are not the only storylines in Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 Pucker Up Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile grass race for 3-year-old fillies that drew 10 entries. Other contenders are Walklikeanegyptian, who won a second-level turf allowance by five lengths last out; Precious Kitten, who ships in for trainer Dale Romans and will be ridden by Rene Douglas, whose split with Romans at Churchill Downs was well publicized; and Ballet Pacifica, who was Group 3-placed last out in France and will head for the barn of Patrick Biancone after running Saturday for French trainer Jean-Claude Rouget.

Palace Rumor was at Churchill Downs the night the Ellis Park tornado struck late last summer. Decent at 2, she came back from a winter freshening vastly improved. Palace Rumor, who cost only $5,000 at auction, has won three straight, including an Aug. 12 win at odds of 19-1 in the Audubon Oaks at Ellis.

"I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of her yet," said McBride, whose stable was decimated by the tornado.

In Soothsay, Cassidy is sending a horse who, on paper, does not look quite as strong as Ticker Tape or Singhalese. An Irish-bred who raced last year in England, Soothsay has won only once in six U.S. starts, taking a minor turf stakes at Golden Gate during the spring. In her most recent race, she finished a close fourth in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.

Vacare has yet to beat a quality horse, but has overwhelmed her competition so far - a born racehorse.

"Absolutely it's a guess how she fits, but I'm encouraged by the way she's done things, and I'm encouraged by her talent level," said trainer Chris Block. "I'm concerned about lack of seasoning, but I think she deserves a chance."

* A race after the Pucker Up comes the $40,000 John Henry, which drew a field of 11, including No Tolerance, Mystery Giver, and Scooter Roach.