07/19/2005 11:00PM

Two Euros don't mind firm turf

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - A funny thing happened early Wednesday afternoon at Arlington Park. It rained.

The Chicago area is wrapped in drought, a drought categorized as D3, or extreme drought, by the National Weather Service. Distinguishing characteristics on the weather service scale include: "major crop/pasture losses; extreme fire danger; widespread water shortages or restrictions."

What the weather service fails to mention is very, very firm going for Million Preview Day here Saturday, but the condition of the Arlington grass course could help shape the three graded stakes that lead up to the International Festival of Racing - commonly known as Arlington Million Day - three weeks hence.

The brief rain took Wednesday's races off turf, the first such move in weeks, and Arlington has religiously watered its spacious course, but the land around here has become so parched that conditions Saturday will almost certainly be fast and firm. That can make a difference, especially since there are Europeans running, but the two Europeans who saw action during Wednesday training actually like this sort of going.

Merger, an Irish-based, American-bred 3-year-old here for the American Derby, worked seven furlongs in 1:34.80, going in company with a Steve Asmussen-trained horse named Gondolieri. Also out for an easy breeze was Artiste Royal - Irish-bred, French-raced, and only recently purchased by Chicagoan Sidney Port - who worked three furlongs in 40.80 seconds.

Take these times with a large grain of salt. The dogs, orange plastic cones in this case, were set far out on the Arlington grass course, and horses were working much farther than their recorded distance. In fact, works were even slower than they appeared on paper, but the computerized system for recording breezes puts caps on recordable times for each distance, and clockers here could enter only the maximum allowable time.

But no horse working this close to a race was going to be in an all-out sprint.

"I let him do just a little bit at the end, but they don't pay you for the morning," said Tom Daly, who traveled from Ireland with Merger for trainer Dermot Weld, and breezed him on Wednesday.

Merger, by Mr. Greeley, is a stout-looking gray colt who appears to have held up well despite shipping overseas into intense heat, and he went easily in Wednesday's piece of work. Weld has won the last two American Derbies, and he obviously has a good sense of which horse can withstand the rigors of midsummer international travel. Merger's first stateside stop was Maryland, and he originally was intended for last weekend's Virginia Derby, but Weld had considered the Arlington race as a backup all along, and changed course to Chicago, Daly said, when jockey Jerry Bailey chose another horse over Merger.

Daly said Merger was "right up there" with the best 3-year-olds in Weld's yard, though the colt has lost six straight races since a debut victory in September. A strong performance will land him a slot in the Secretariat Stakes, Daly said, and regardless of how firm the Arlington course is, Merger won't mind.

"That's the kind of ground he likes," Daly said. "He's not a soft-ground kind of horse."

De Seroux has import for Handicap

Trainer Laura de Seroux's Arlington race has been the Stars and Stripes Handicap, which she won in 2003 and 2004 with Ballingarry. This year, the Stars and Stripes came and went sans de Seroux, but she has a horse for the Arlington Handicap on Saturday.

Morning railbirds got a look at him Wednesday, but Artiste Royal did little more than two-minute clip through the stretch in a three-furlong turf breeze timed in 40.80 seconds. Artiste Royal, a Group 3 winner in his most recent start, just exited quarantine on July 10, and is running here Saturday probably not as a stepping-stone to the Arlington Million, but rather a grass race during the Del Mar meet.

"I would think the Million would come up a little quick for him," de Seroux said.

De Seroux and her husband, the bloodstock agent Emmanuel de Seroux, have successfully dipped into the French market many times in the past, and Laura de Seroux likes the looks of this purchase.

"He's a pretty genuine horse, I think," she said. "His only bad form is on heavy ground, and he's certainly not going to get that here."

An ailing Dayano out

Dayano was supposed to be putting the finishing touches Wednesday morning on his training for the Arlington Handicap. Instead, he was at a University of Illinois veterinary clinic somewhere in Champaign, Ill., and is out of Saturday's race.

Dayano arrived here from Germany on Sunday, and apparently did not travel well. He cleared the tightest U.S. quarantine restrictions and was permitted to train on Tuesday morning, but developed a lung infection, remained in the Arlington quarantine barn during training hours, and was shipped to the clinic Wednesday for round-the-clock care, though his illness was not said to be serious.

Dayano is trained by Andreas Wohler, who won the 2001 Million with Silvano and has successfully shipped horses around the globe in recent seasons. Plans for Dayano won't be determined until next week, when it is hoped he will have recovered from his illness.

* The highest-class race on Friday's 10-race card is an entry-level allowance, race 8, that drew a field of seven.