07/25/2002 12:00AM

Strut the Stage needs this

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - You've got to give even the best horse a mulligan now and then. Strut the Stage got his earlier this month.

Saturday at Arlington, Strut the Stage should have every chance to rebound from a subpar sixth-place finish July 4 in the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs. Facing slightly lesser competition this time, Strut the Stage should be favored in the $225,000 Arlington Handicap, a Grade 3 grass race at 1 1/4 miles.

Along with the Grade 3 Modesty for females on turf and Round Table for 3-year-olds on dirt, the Arlington Handicap is part of Million Preview Day. The Modesty serves as the local prep for the Beverly D., the Handicap as a prep for the Arlington Million.

A good showing Saturday lands Strut the Stage in the Million, where he can avenge the nose loss he suffered here last year in the Grade 1 Secretariat. But another clunker like the one in the Firecracker will further cloud Strut the Stage's campaign.

Mark Frostad, who trains Strut the Stage for Sam-Son Farm, doesn't seem especially worried - but when does he ever? The laid-back Frostad didn't manufacture an excuse for Strut the Stage's loss. He wasn't sure what went wrong at Churchill, only that Strut the Stage came into the race in good shape and came out of it equally well.

Frostad might have claimed with validity that at one mile the Firecracker was too short. A compact powerhouse of a horse, Strut the Stage has a big late kick that might be most effective at distances of nine furlongs and up, and his best race, the Secretariat, came at the same distance as the Handicap.

The rest of the field is a good one for a Grade 3. Kappa King, in from California for trainer Bobby Frankel, probably is the second choice after finishing third in the Grade 2 American Handicap at Hollywood Park, but it is a local horse - Illinois-bred no less - who might have the strongest upset chance.

Twelve starts into his career, Mystery Giver still is a work in progress. Mystery Giver, whose sister Ioya Two runs in the Modesty, struggled to win Illinois-bred allowance races last summer when he still was growing into his gangly body. Mystery Giver started coming around last fall and won the $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup in February, then took the statebred Cardinal Handicap here June 22 in his first race back from a three-month layoff.

"He's doing really well right now," said trainer Chris Block. "I'm anxious to find out how good he is."

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