07/29/2004 11:00PM

Toliver steps up to face stakes winner

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Smoke Smoke Smoke has two wins and a stakes victory, but that does not necessarily make him a better horse than Toliver, who has started only once. What Toliver did was smoke a Churchill Downs maiden field in his career debut, and the meeting between these two 2-year-old colts alone makes Sunday's $50,000 Honest Pleasure Stakes worth watching.

There are five others in the Honest Pleasure, which might be called a prep for the prep for the Arlington-Washington Futurity here in September. While the Futurity is at a one-turn mile, the Honest Pleasure is at 5 1/2 furlongs, which puts a greater premium on speed.

And that is what Toliver showed in his June 23 debut, sprinting to the lead and staying there, beating seven opponents while running 4 1/2 furlongs in a swift 51.60 seconds. Although his lone start came in Kentucky, Toliver knows Arlington well: He was based here before he raced and returned late this month.

"I didn't think Toliver was as advanced as he was when we first started him," said Tom Amoss, who trains Toliver. "We liked him, but I didn't know he was that precocious."

Toliver has worked several times since his win, with an emphasis on traits besides speed.

"Now, the game changes," Amoss said. "We want to see just how far this horse will go. Being precocious is not necessarily an advantage now."

Smoke Smoke Smoke already knows how to rate. He did it when he won his career debut June 27 at Canterbury and when he won the July 11 Canterbury Juvenile by more than five lengths.

"What I like about him is that he comes from off the pace," said trainer Hugh Robertson.

Smoke Smoke Smoke was with Robertson's son, Mac, at Canterbury because the colt's owner, Jerry Myers, is a Minnesotan. Smoke Smoke Smoke came to Arlington about a week ago, Robertson said, and "blew out well" for the Honest Pleasure.

A handicapper also could make a case for Copy My Notes, a Churchill debut winner who was fifth in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor. Eternal Pass, a Great Lakes shipper, may be an interesting price shot for exotic wagers.

More active Amoss has remained hot

It is not just selected stakes like the Honest Pleasure that are attracting starters from the Amoss barn. Amoss, fresh off a fantastic Churchill Downs meet, has started horses more regularly here than he has in recent years, and his participation has stepped up significantly since Churchill's end.

And the winning has not slowed at all. Through Thursday, Amoss had 14 winners here from only 33 starters, a total that puts him in a tie for fourth in the trainer standings. Frank Kirby leads the way with 21 wins, but his barn has gone cold in recent weeks. Still, Amoss says he doesn't believe he can contend for the training title at Arlington.

"How long can we keep up what we've been doing?" Amoss said. "It's freaky. I have no idea what we're doing. It's not anything different than at Fair Grounds," where Amoss had a down year. "But anyone who's been around the game long enough knows it comes to an end. I'm realistic about that."

Amoss has about 20 stalls at Arlington and can draw on horses from his Kentucky division when needed.

"We knew about the Arlington purse increase this time of summer," Amoss said. "I'm happy with the way things have worked out."

Europeans will have big presence this season

The Aug. 14 International Festival of Racing, headlined by the Arlington Million, will indeed have an international flavor this season. On Friday, Arlington released lists of candidates for its three Grade 1 turf races, and of the 14 horses considered possible starters in the Million, half reside out of the country.

But American racing fans will be forgiven if they lack specific knowledge of the European Million candidates. The prospective European contingent includes Epalo, Gateman, Imperial Dancer, Magistretti, Powerscourt, Scott's View, and Vespone - none of whom has demonstrated top class overseas. The seven American-based horses are Kicken Kris, Mobil, Mr. O'Brien, Mystery Giver, Quantum Merit, Senor Swinger, and Sweet Return.

Musical Chimes, Commercante, and Bedanken top 12 prospective Beverly D. starters. Thirteen 3-year-olds are possible for the Secretariat, including Artie Schiller, Cool Conductor, Greek Sun, Kitten's Joy, Mustanfar, Simple Exchange, Timo, and Toasted.