11/08/2004 1:00AM

Toll Taker vastly superior

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Toll Taker, winner of the Grade 3 Astarita, will now face statebreds.

STICKNEY, Ill. - There are a couple of decent Chicago-based 2-year-old fillies pointing for the Showtime Deb Stakes here at Hawthorne on Saturday, one of six Illinois-bred stakes races scheduled for the card. You could forgive their connections for lacking confidence.

A plane headed from New York to Chicago on Thursday will carry Toll Taker, who could be the heaviest favorite in any of the Saturday stakes. Toll Taker has won three in a row, a streak that culminated Oct. 17 with an easy win in the Grade 3 Astarita at Belmont.

It's a pretty simple equation: An actual Grade 3 horse going into a statebred-restricted race equals standout.

Toll Taker is by first-crop sire Bernstein, and she was bred in Illinois by the longtime Midwestern owner Robert Lothenbach. But Toll Taker went to a yearling auction last fall in Maryland, where she failed to meet a $40,000 reserve and was bought back by her consignor.

Enter trainer Tim Hills and owner Patrick Welsh, who paid $40,000 to buy Toll Taker privately.

"I wasn't really looking for an Illinois-bred, since I'm based on the East Coast," Hills said Monday. "I went and looked at her, and I really liked her."

Toll Taker finished off her major work for the Showtime Deb with a comfortable half-mile breeze Monday over the Belmont Park training track. She sat behind a workmate, Hills said, and passed her in the stretch - just like Toll Taker has been doing in her races.

Toll Taker had been well regarded at the Florida farm where she was broken, and Hills also was high on her, but she finished sixth in her career debut last June and third in her second start, coming out of both races with lung infections.

"Some horses, they'll cough like they're dying and nothing's wrong with them, but she never made a sound," Hills said.

An altered antibiotic regimen brought the chronic infections under control, and Toll Taker started rolling. She won a Monmouth maiden race by five lengths, and an allowance there three weeks later by 10. In the Astarita, she beat up on a field that included next-out stakes winner Summer Raven.

"She's the kind of filly, she looks like she'd stretch out," Hills said. "But this seems like a softer spot, so we figured we'd keep her sprinting, then take her to Gulfstream and aim her at some distance races."

Keeping the Gold attempts comeback

If things had gone according to plan, the 4-year-old filly Keeping the Gold would have been rearing a foal early this summer. Instead, they were putting tack on her at the Block family farm near Ocala, Fla., probing to see if Keeping the Gold still wanted to be a racehorse.

For four months, her answer has been "yes," but the most difficult question comes Saturday, when Keeping the Gold runs in the Illini Princess Handicap on Illinois Day. The race will be her first start since Sept. 13, 2003, when Keeping the Gold finished fifth in the Grade 3 Pucker Up on the Arlington turf.

Keeping the Gold came out of the Pucker Up with a tendon injury, a tough break since she had emerged as one of the best statebred fillies of her generation.

"It was bad enough where we had to stop on her, and then we decided to go ahead and breed her," said trainer Chris Block. "She was in foal, but there were complications, and she lost the foal. So, we decided to dink around and see if she'd accept training. If she didn't handle it, she'd go right back to the breeding shed."

Instead, Keeping the Gold is going right into a stakes race. Block would have run in the right prep race, but nothing fit properly.

"The timing wasn't right," Block said. "The last couple works, we've thrown company at her. I didn't think she'd get as much out of a sprint race as I could do with these last few works."

'Jimi' may try route at Hoosier

Coach Jimi Lee won a high-end sprint allowance race Oct. 28 at Keeneland, but Monday he was cooling out from a five-furlong workout in trainer Jim DiVito's Hawthorne barn, and might be back in business on Saturday at Hoosier Park.

DiVito said he planned to enter Coach Jimi Lee in the $100,000-added Schaefer Mile Handicap, though he won't make a final decision on whether to ship until later in the week. Mainly a sprinter, Coach Jimi Lee would be asked to carry his speed around two turns in the Schaefer.

Paceless group in turf feature

Chequered Love got hung up in traffic on the far turn when she last raced here, on Oct. 20. With a clean run, she might have won that day, and with a clean run, Chequered Love can win the featured fifth race here Wednesday. As she did last time, Chequered Love runs in a third-level turf allowance with a $35,000 claiming option.

But a good trip could be difficult to work out in this 1 1/16-mile race, which has 10 horses but little pace. The field figures to bunch up on the far turn, and if Chequered Love saves ground from the rail and finds a seam for her rally, she can outfinish the opposition.

I Can Fan Fan is a pace threat, while Hug Me Hug Me, a sharp winner on this course a month ago, attempts to make the jump from Illinois-bred to open company.