08/11/2004 11:00PM

Thirteen ready to follow a tough act

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - If something happens this weekend at Arlington Park to eclipse last summer's Arlington Million - duck.

Saturday's International Festival of Racing, featuring three Grade 1 stakes - the , Beverly D., and Secretariat - begins in the shadow of last year's Million, with Storming Home's spectacular last-second swerve. Jockey cum movie icon Gary Stevens wound up flat out on the turf course. Storming Home ran loose, then had his number taken down from first to fourth. The European star Sulamani got the candy.

Try writing the sequel to that.

The players in Million XXIII are many. Thirteen were entered in the 1 1/4-mile grass race, with contender piled upon contender. Sweet Return from California has been installed as the 7-2 morning-line favorite, but on paper he looks no better than many. The post-time favorite could be something closer to 9-2.

Betting opportunities abound. The Million and the Beverly D. are part of a $1 National Pick 4 with the Sword Dancer and the Vanderbilt at Saratoga. A $1 Festival Pick 3 links Arlington's three Grade 1's, and a special daily double includes the $750,000 Beverly D., race 8, and the Million, race 9. The $400,000 Secretariat is race 11 on a 12-race program beginning at 11:45 a.m. Central that looks like Arlington's best in years. The forecast is ideal: sunny and about 73. The Million and Beverly D. are on ABC beginning at 3 p.m. Central.

If Sweet Return should prevail, Ron McAnally would become the first trainer to win four Millions. Sweet Return, who will have Jerry Bailey in the irons, finished third last out in the Eddie Read, typically a key Million prep. Bailey, who has live mounts in all three Festival races, can position Sweet Return wherever he likes: The horse has won from on and off the pace.

There are plenty of front-runners - no speed-burners, though - including three of the four Europeans. Only Magistretti, the least likely winner of the quartet, conforms to the standard European model. Vespone, Powerscourt, and Epalo race on or near the lead, and they can do so effectively.

But Vespone has been ineffective, going winless in five starts this year after a fruitful 3-year-old season.

"The good ground here will suit him," said Charlie Applebey, who has helped oversee Vespone for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

The same contention comes from Epalo's German trainer, Andreas Schutz, who finished fourth in the 2001 Million with Caitano. Another German horse, Silvano, won the race that year, and the German-based Paolini dead-heated for third last year. Epalo, who arrived earliest among the Europeans, looked sharp in a mild turf breeze Thursday morning, and has been aimed at Chicago since he won the Group 1 Singapore Cup by five lengths May 16. Epalo led all the way in Singapore, but also has run well settling behind a pacesetter. With the speedy Mobil breaking from post 13, that might be his trip.

"It's no problem for him if someone wants the lead," Schutz said.

Powerscourt, from the powerful Aidan O'Brien stable in Ireland, has accomplished more than the other Europeans, with Group 1 placings at 2 and 3, and a win in the Tattersalls Gold Cup on May 23. Second choice at 4-1 in the morning line, Powerscourt is much like Epalo, with a fondness for firm turf and a front-running style.

Sweet Return is only one of several Americans with a chance. Mr O'Brien ran into traffic trouble when he was second and third in Grade 1 turf races this summer. Mystery Giver, locally based and Illinois-bred, has a powerful kick on his day, and Kicken Kris, an easy winner of last year's Secretariat, easily won the Grade 2 Bowling Green last out.

Bob Baffert never has started a horse in the Million. This year, he has two, Sabiango and Senor Swinger, the Arlington Handicap winner. Bobby Frankel, a two-time winner, sends out Vangelis, winless in three U.S. starts. But Frankel, who also has entrants in the Beverly D. and Secretariat, calls Vangelis "the one with the best chance."

After the Storming Home circus, the hope is that this Million gives everyone a fair chance.

The field

Arlington Million
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles, turf; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1Mr O'BrienP. Day8-1
2VesponeL. Dettori12-1
3Sweet ReturnJ. Bailey7-2
4Kicken KrisK. Desormeaux8-1
5SabiangoV. Espinoza6-1
6Mystery GiverR. Douglas15-1
7EpaloA. Starke8-1
8Senor SwingerB. Blanc12-1
9VangelisJ. Valdivia10-1
10PowerscourtJ. Spencer4-1
11Hatif M. Smith50-1
12MagistrettiE. Prado30-1
13Mobil J. Jones20-1

* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Track morning line odds
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. (Eastern), ABC