09/13/2004 11:00PM

Turf stepping-stone

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
New York-based Spotlight is one of two high-profile shippers for Saturday's Pucker Up Handicap.

CHICAGO - Spotlight was entered last Sunday in the Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup Handicap at Belmont Park, but instead of starting there, she worked a half-mile on dirt Monday morning, and left later that day for Chicago. Spotlight arrived Tuesday morning at Arlington, where she is expected to start in the Pucker Up Handicap on closing weekend.

The Grade 3, $200,000 Pucker Up for 3-year-old grass fillies is Saturday. Sunday's closing-day card includes the Arlington-Washington Lassie for 2-year-old fillies and the Arlington-Washington Futurity for 2-year-old males, both Grade 3 races.

The Pucker Up has unusual appeal this season, with Spotlight in from New York and the Grade 1 winner Ticker Tape shipping Wednesday from California. Both of those fillies could use the race here as a springboard to the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes next month at Keeneland, perhaps the top race of the season for 3-year-old turf fillies.

"If she runs well in this race, then that would be our probable next target," said Christophe Lorieul, an assistant to trainer Christophe Clement. Clement, and much of the rest of the racing world, is at Keeneland's massive September yearling sale this week.

Spotlight, an English import, beat allowance horses by two lengths in her U.S. debut July 23, and a month later she won the Grade 2 Lake Placid at Saratoga even more easily. According to Lorieul, Spotlight was held out of Garden City to make way for another Clement-trained filly, Torrestrella, who had a troubled trip in the race and finished sixth as the favorite.

Spotlight "is training very well," Lorieul said, and had an uneventful journey to Arlington. Her major work for the Pucker Up was finished with Monday's dirt work, a half-mile in 48.64 seconds, and she will gallop into Saturday's race.

Lorieul reported that Arlington's leading rider, Rene Douglas, will pick up the mount on Spotlight. Kent Desormeaux flies in to ride Ticker Tape, who won the Grade 1 American Oaks in mid-summer and most recently was beaten a nose in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. Desormeaux returns to Chicago about a month after the Arlington Million, in which he rode Kicken Kris, who was elevated to first by the controversial disqualification of Powerscourt.

Asmussen comes back strong

Steve Asmussen said in early August that he would not go all out to win the Arlington training title. But now that he's so close, how can Asmussen resist the call of yet another conquest?

Asmussen returns Thursday from a two-week suspension that had been put off since late summer of 2003. Even though his Arlington horses have been running in the name of assistant trainer Toby Sheets (costing Asmussen two victories), Asmussen still has a chance to catch Frank Kirby and capture his first Arlington training title. Both he and rival Tom Amoss trailed Kirby 29 wins to 26 going into this week's racing, but while Amoss has just one horse in on Thursday's nine-race program, Asmussen entered eight horses in five different races. Kirby, who last won an Arlington training title 30 years ago, has horses in four races.

Asmussen also has a probable starter for Sunday's Lassie, a Langfuhr filly named Fi, who won her maiden by eight lengths Aug. 29 at Arlington.

Even with the recent suspension, Asmussen has won 372 races this year, far more than any other trainer in the country. Despite the two-week absence, Asmussen is still on pace to break Jack Van Berg's record of 496 wins in a season.