08/11/2005 12:00AM

A year later, form eludes Powerscourt

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Powerscourt returns for Saturday's Million, in which he finished first last year but was disqualified to fourth.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - You'd think the horse that finished first in the 2004 Arlington Million might be the big name in Saturday's race, but Powerscourt has returned to Arlington Park from trainer Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle training center in Ireland draped in doubt.

The first snag came in last year's Million itself, when Powerscourt lugged in after making the lead coming off the turn. It was judged - and judged somewhat controversially - that he had caused a chain reaction that rippled back to the third-place finisher, and stewards disqualified Powerscourt from first to fourth.

But there is another snag. Taken down at Arlington, Powerscourt hasn't won a race of any kind in 15 months. He has run three times this year, finishing fifth in the Dubai Sheema Classic, fourth in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes in mid-June, and second of just four horses in the Group 2 Scottish Derby on July 18. The serious question is this: Is Powerscourt a diminished animal this year, or has O'Brien merely been waiting to send the horse back to the U.S., where he has run two of his best races, in the Million and last year's Breeders' Cup Turf?

O'Brien is not here to answer, and his traveling lad, Pat Keating, was not eager to address such issues this week, saying only that Powerscourt had shipped well and was in good health. But there are officials here from the International Racing Bureau who keenly follow European racing, and one of them, Alistair Donald, is siding with the idea that Powerscourt will run as well this year as he did last.

"On the face of it, he doesn't seem to be in the same form as last year, but I don't believe that," Donald said. "I think he's going to run a big race."

Donald said he views the Scottish Derby as a mere prep and noted that Powerscourt will race in blinkers Saturday for the first time since his race in Dubai. And the thinking goes that when the blinkers go on, O'Brien means business.

Jamie Spencer rode Powerscourt in last year's Million and was heavily criticized for making a premature move in the Breeders' Cup Turf, where Powerscourt wound up third. Spencer is a non-issue this year, with veteran Kieren Fallon riding Powerscourt and O'Brien's other two horses at Arlington, Grand Central in the Secretariat and Mona Lisa in the Beverly D.

O'Neill confident in Martinez

Until this year, jockey Felipe Martinez had never won a graded stakes race. Martinez has ridden in 5,063 races, but has won only 397 of them, making him a career 7 percent rider.

But trainer Doug O'Neill said he thinks he has found the 7 percent solution. Rather than go for a big-name jock, O'Neill is leaving Martinez on Whilly when the horse starts in the Million on Saturday.

"Felipe, shoot, he would take a Greyhound bus to Chicago if he had to," O'Neill said. "He wants to ride that horse anywhere he can and just fits him like a glove."

Whilly is a front-runner, but Martinez, who has three wins so far at the Del Mar meet, has learned to harness and ration his speed.

"At first he was really tough, but now he's getting more mature," Martinez said of Whilly.

Martinez might be a newcomer to big-time races, but he's not a newcomer. At 41, Martinez has been around long enough to at least hope he won't be nervous Saturday.

"I don't know if I'll be or not," he said. "I'll just see when I get there."

Lord of the Game vs. Nkosi Reigns

There are three $45,000 overnight stakes races on the Million Day undercard with fields decidedly superior to the purses.

Best of all is the Cigar, a one-mile dirt race that pits Lord of the Game against Nkosi Reigns. The two finished less than a length apart here in the May 28 Hanshin Handicap; since then, Lord of the Game has won the Cornhusker Breeders' Cup Handicap and finished second in the Claiming Crown Jewel. Nkosi Reigns's summer form is less impressive, but his recent breezes have been outstanding.

Straight Line should benefit from a move back to one-turn racing in the Forward Pass, which is for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs. Straight Line has won 4 of 7 starts at one turn, but failed in all three of his two-turn tries. He should be challenged by Rocky River, Thunder Mission, and perhaps Step Right In or Wonone.

The Smart Deb for 3-year-old fillies could come down More Moonlight and Mary Alex.

Statistical trends from the Million

* Favorites have won 11 of the 22 runnings of the Million, with the latest being Beat Hollow in 2002.

* Although six Million winners also won their previous start, nine winners finished second in their last start. No winner has ever finished worse than sixth in his prior start.

* Nine winners have come from California, seven from the East Coast, three from Germany, two from England, and one from France.

* Nineteen of the 22 winners have started from post 7 or closer inside. The winner who was farthest out was Paradise Creek, who won in 1994 from post 12. (The Million has had 11 or fewer starters 15 times.)

* Through its early years, the Beverly D. was strictly the domain of California connections. In fact, not counting the first running in 1987, when the purse was a mere $50,000, fillies or mares from California won the first five runnings and six of the first seven.

Since the Irish filly Timarida won in 1996, though, the statistics have leveled off, with New York horses winning three times and Europeans and Californians each winning twice.

* The Turf Festival events have always been dominated by out-of-town horsemen and jockeys, but occasionally a Chicago-based trainer or jockey will take part in one of the three events.

Not this year. Only Mark Guidry, who rides Purim in the Secretariat, can be considered local, and that's a stretch, since Guidry, a former Chicago kingpin, only returned here when the Churchill Downs meet ended July 10. Not even Shaun Bridgmohan, the Jamaica native who has been sensational as the runaway leader atop the standings in his first Arlington meet, was able to line up a Festival mount.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee