09/26/2003 12:00AM

Tenpins primed for crucial test


CHICAGO - Backstage, following stakes races at Arlington, Dick Duchossois or a substitute executive leads the winning connections in a champagne toast. That was fine, but after Tenpins won the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington last fall, Don Winfree was holding a cold beer.

There are few frills to Winfree, a grizzled veteran trainer of the Kentucky circuit. And that applies to his assessment of Tenpins's 2003 campaign.

"We'll know how his year has gone after Sunday," Winfree said, reached by phone this week.

Sunday, Tenpins runs in the $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, in a short field that includes the standout handicapper Perfect Drift.

"We've been pointing to this race for months," Winfree said. "So far, so good. If he wins Sunday, we're going to go to the Breeders' Cup. If not, then we're going to the Fayette and the Clark."

There it is, in black and white, a far cry from Winfree's frustration at this time last year. When Tenpins won the 2002 Washington Park, Winfree and owner Joseph Vitello considered a run in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Tenpins was in, then out, as Winfree grew testy fielding a barrage of calls from reporters.

"Last year, he had a couple things going on leading up to the Breeders' Cup that made it hard to think about putting up the money to run," Winfree said. "This year, he's great."

He is fine now, but the season got off to a rocky start. Tenpins trained at Fair Grounds this winter, with a start in the New Orleans Handicap as a tentative goal. But he never made the workout tab, much less the race.

"He had a bone bruise, and we weren't happy with him down in New Orleans. I just turned him out till the end of March," Winfree said.

When Tenpins came back, he had blossomed. Last season, Winfree fretted over Tenpins's weight. A lean horse then, Tenpins would run extremely hard in his races, and it could take time for him to bounce back. "He came back 100 pounds heavier than last year," Winfree said. "He went from a colt to a horse."

The added heft should serve Tenpins well as he gets into the meat of his campaign. Winfree brought Tenpins back in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap on July 12 at Prairie Meadows, and he won by two lengths in an impressive comeback. The Aug. 23 Iselin at Monmouth was scarcely more difficult, as Tenpins prevailed by a measured length. That made nine wins in 13 starts for Tenpins, who certainly is among the best Michigan-breds ever.

Now, he will attempt to break into the top tier of handicap horses in the country. Tenpins already has gotten close. He finished third in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster last season, and may be ready to run the race of his life this weekend.

He will need to to beat Perfect Drift, who proved himself to be among the elite of the handicap division by beating Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster and Congaree in the Kentucky Cup Classic. But Winfree isn't ducking anyone now.

"I am excited," he said. "We'll see where we're at Sunday. Perfect Drift is a good a horse as there is. If we can't beat him, we don't belong in the Breeders' Cup. If we can, we do."