05/28/2004 12:00AM

On turf only, Echo Jo has excellent shot

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CHICAGO - As head of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, Joe Kasperski has spent plenty of time this week with an ear toward Springfield, Ill., where state governmental help for the Illinois racing industry - be it ontrack slots or some other salve - could become law during the ongoing legislative session.

But you can bet that during Sunday's featured eighth race, Kasperski will concentrate his attention on the Arlington Park grass course. Somewhere in the stretch, if things go the way they look on paper, Kasperski should see Echo Jo, a filly he trains, barreling toward the lead.

Echo Jo was one of seven fillies and mares entered in Sunday's eighth race, a second-level one-mile turf allowance restricted to Illinois-breds. Virtue Ohso was entered main-track only and might get a chance to run, since thunderstorms are forecast.

If the race comes off the turf, all bets are off Echo Jo, who has shown ability only in grass races. On turf, she has won three times in 10 starts, including two victories at Arlington, and though her lone start of 2004 produced only a seventh-place finish, Echo Jo made a strong run before running out of steam in deep stretch. Moreover, that Hawthorne prep race came in an open second-level allowance, so Echo Jo drops in class just as her form figures to move forward.

The complicating factor in the Sunday feature is a lack of early pace. Miss Bingo Bettie and Sara's Shadow, the two horses many handicappers will consider Echo Jo's primary rivals, seem to run best from off the pace. A few horses possess modest tactical speed - Diva Del Sol, Katie Last, and the best of the probable lead group, Octagon - but the fractions figure to be slow, and the field bunched up behind them.

Janks barn still going strong

The trainer Christine Janks has historically pointed much of her stock to the Arlington meet, and when Janks started winning races at a strong clip this past spring at Hawthorne, it made one wonder if her program had been fundamentally altered. Janks claimed otherwise. She said she just had a strong group of horses this season, and that her spring success wouldn't hurt her summer routine.

And it has not. With two more victories Thursday, Janks took the lead in the trainer standings with six winners - one more than Frank Kirby - from only 16 runners. Janks won the first race with Caped Crusade and the fifth with Bin to War, both horses first-time starters in Illinois-bred races.

Caped Crusade, a 2-year-old colt by Cape Town, won by 1 3/4 lengths, but was aided by the antics of Barken. Barken had cruised up to the lead a furlong into the race and was traveling well, but blew the turn and came into the stretch at least 10 paths wide, eventually finishing second. Caped Crusade ran a solid time, going 4 1/2 furlongs in 52.97 seconds.

Bin to War, a 3-year-old Binalong colt, won the fifth race by a neck under Cruz Contreras.

Mystery Giver looking good

Mystery Giver remains on schedule to start June 12 at Churchill Downs in the $100,000 Opening Verse Stakes. In fact, Mystery Giver appears to be thriving after two straight top-level performances, a victory in the Mervin Muniz Handicap and a closing third in the Turf Classic on Derby Day at Churchill.

Heading out of Chris Block's barn for a gallop Thursday morning, Mystery Giver was noticeably stronger than in past years, and clearly eager to get to the track. Block said this week that Mystery Giver will have a new rider in the Opening Verse, with Jerry Bailey to replace Robby Albarado, who is committed to ride elsewhere that day.