06/12/2001 12:00AM

Track wooing top handicap horses for July 21 race


CHICAGO - Say this for Arlington Park: Though it is the dominating force in Chicago racing, the track is not averse to making changes.

During its off-season Arlington revamped its stakes schedule. "You always want to see where your weak points are," said Frank Gabriel, the track's director of racing. "If a race isn't strong, it's either timing or not enough money."

This year, Arlington reduced the Arlington Million purse to $1 million from last year's $2 million, and created a three-stakes Million Preview day in July.

And Arlington has begun trying to build the Washington Park Handicap into a major dirt race for older horses. Last year, the Washington Park was run at 1 1/8 miles and offered a $250,000 purse, and it attracted a mediocre field. This year, the race has been stretched out to 1 1/4 miles and carries a $400,000 purse, and the changes may vault it into another category.

"At a mile and an eighth for $250,000, it's just another race," said Gabriel. "There's an open space on the calendar between the Suburban and the Pacific Classic" that the Washington Park can fill.

The July 21 Washington Park fits with the Pacific Classic and the Suburban because all three are at 1 1/4 miles, and Arlington hopes the added distance, as well as the added money, will help separate the Washington Park from other summer handicaps like the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker, which is worth $400,000, including $75,000 for Breeders' Cup-eligible horses, and will be run at 1 1/8 miles on July 7.

Gabriel said Arlington had already contacted trainers of top handicap horses to encourage their participation, though no firm commitments are locked up.

Injury delays Alvarado's arrival

Jockey Frank Alvarado, who was to move his tack from northern California and begin riding here opening day, was injured in a spill at Bay Meadows on Sunday and is off his mounts this week. Alvarado suffered a broken rib when his mount, Times Square, broke down and fell on the far turn of the Ascot Handicap. Alvarado landed hard on his shoulder and head.

Alvarado was to have ridden all of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's horses so far this week, including Globalize in the opening day Barry Shipp Handicap. He had two calls for Hollendorfer on Thursday.

Main track races draw short fields

Entries for Thursday - on dirt, at least - were disappointing. Of the seven dirt races carded, three have seven-horse fields and a fourth a six-horse field. But horsemen went wild over the second-level turf allowance race for Thursday. The race was split into two 10-horse divisions, which go as races six and eight on a nine-race program.

The eighth probably attracted the deeper field, and the sixth looks like a shootout between Pleasant King and Esperence.

A 5-year-old Pleasant Colony horse who trains at Keeneland with Chris Speckert, Pleasant King can deliver a strong late run on turf, but has made a habit of finishing second, third, or fourth in his races. Jockey Mark Guidry, known for finishing strongly, could help Pleasant King.

A slow pace, which seems likely, would hurt Pleasant King and help Esperence. No speed horse himself, Esperence could race on or just off the early lead. Esperence has stamina and some class. In April he won a 1 1/4-mile turf race at this allowance level at Keeneland, jumping above his established allowance condition because trainer Mike Stidham thought Esperence would run well in a turf marathon.

At 1 1/16 miles, Thursday's race is shorter, but not too short for Esperence. Zoe Cadman, who has worked for both Speckert and Stidham, has the mount on Esperence.

Notion will win the eighth race if he runs back to his last race, in which he was second by a nose on May 22 at Hawthorne. Owner-trainer Louie Roussel bought Notion privately over the winter, and the gelding has blossomed this spring. Notion won a turf allowance March 25 at Fair Grounds and at Hawthorne May 22 was much the best horse. Traffic stopped Notion's mid-stretch move cold, but Notion re-rallied when seemingly beaten to narrowly miss the winner.

Grow, who finished a neck behind Notion last month, and minor stakes winner Altered Birdie are the other obvious contenders.