01/17/2003 1:00AM

Bella Bellucci, Got Koko better watch out

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PHOENIX - She was at different times the most hyped and most criticized filly in her class. And now, at age 4, Bella Bellucci remains a puzzle. So, which Bella Bellucci will appear in Sunday's Grade 2 El Encino? The one who looked so awesome winning the Grade 2 Astarita as a 2-year-old and winning the Grade 3 Comely in a laugher at 3? Or the filly who was no factor in big races, including the Acorn and Gazelle, both Grade 1's, and was recently a non-threatening fourth in the Grade 1 La Brea at Santa Anita on opening weekend?

Despite Bella Bellucci's exposed weaknesses, fans may still make the Neil Drysdale-trained filly the favorite in the 1 1/16-mile race. In the La Brea, she had an inside post, which didn't help because the inside was not the place to be opening week at Santa Anita, especially in sprint races. Bella Bellucci managed to get outside and make a little run, but was not a threat and certainly not a match for the winner, Got Koko, who is also in the El Encino. At 5-2, Bella Bellucci would be a tough bet to swallow.

Got Koko looked potent winning the seven-furlong La Brea for trainer Bruce Headley. She has won both times she raced a route on dirt, one of them a win in Del Mar's Torrey Pines. But if you didn't get on board at 17-1 that day, do you really want to jump on Saturday, at 3-1 or so, having missed the big payoff?

There is another option. The Dave Hofmans-trained filly Adoration is due for some better luck. She won last summer's Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks, so she has proven route talent. She tapered off dramatically afterward - she was shipped to Delaware for the Delaware Oaks, which was a disaster, then she was no factor in either the Sen. Ken Maddy down the hill in October or the Churchill Downs Distaff in November.

She was trying to make a move in the Grade 3 Monrovia, run down the hill at Santa Anita on Dec. 31, but was stopped cold in traffic and eventually finished ninth. On Sunday, Adoration goes back to two turns and back to dirt, and if her in-company workout Tuesday morning is an accurate gauge, she can play the spoiler role.

Adoration, ridden by Pat Valenzuela, broke three lengths behind her workmate, ranged up at the three-sixteenths pole, then edged clear, completing the five furlongs in 59.60 seconds.

"She needs to be ridden patiently, and I wanted Pat to see that," Hofmans said. "That's why I had him work her behind another horse. It was a good work."

Adoration has speed and class and is sitting on an upset. Maybe she can be the El Encino version of Got Koko in the La Brea.

San Marcos: Class vs. current form

It is a recurring theme in stakes races: How do you compare current sharpness with returning class?

If the current sharpness comes with enough class, I'll take current sharpness every time.

That translates to a vote for the hot Grammarian in Monday's Grade 2 San Marcos Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on the turf at Santa Anita. No doubt the water's deep. Among Grammarian's opposition figures to be The Tin Man, idle since finishing fourth behind monsters High Chaparral and With Anticipation in the Breeders' Cup Turf, and winner of the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship on this course during the Oak Tree meet; Johar, dominant winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby; Harrisand, recent smashing winner at Hollywood; and White Heart, a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner on turf.

But Grammarian's current form seems strong, and his recent exploits have come against opposition you could put on a par with the his San Marcos foes.

In the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup, he made the pace and put down a number of challenges, though in the end he was unable to fend off the hard-charging Sligo Bay. Still, Grammarian's runner-up effort was commendable. And he got better. In the Grade 2 San Gabriel at Santa Anita opening week, he was a smashing winner, pressing the issue early, then blasting home to easily defeat a field that included David Copperfield and the very talented Decarchy.

It appears that Grammarian has come of age. Back in July he was good enough to win the 12-furlong, Grade 2 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood. After winning the nine-furlong San Gabriel, he will stretch out in the San Marcos to 10 furlongs, likely his favorite distance. Grammarian's on full tilt and it would be no surprise if the talented entry of The Tin Man and Johar, trained by Richard Mandella, wasn't quite as good.

Mandella admits that this is merely a stepping-off point for his runners.

"I'm just trying to get them back on the trail for the long-distance turf races," he said. "I wish I had two different races to run them in, but I don't. But they're both very nice and they complement each other [with their racing styles]. One's a speed horse [The Tin Man] and one comes from way back [Johar]."

Down the road, you would have to side with the Mandella pair for other important races, but on Monday, when you go to the window, you're wagering on the San Marcos - and it's Grammarian who's the "now" horse.