10/23/2003 11:00PM

Bonaguil can challenge Ninebanks

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Ninebanks, winner of the Grade 2, $200,000 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Handicap and the $100,000 California Turf Championship here earlier this year, is the one to beat over the Bay Meadows turf course in the $60,000-added Pacifica Handicap on Sunday.

The likely favorite in the field of 10 in the 1 1/16-mile race, Ninebanks, comfortably drawn in post 5, could have some tough competition.

Bonaguil, who won an $80,000 optional claimer here earlier this month, figures to offer a stern challenge. And longtime rival Surprise Halo and stablemate Lethal Instrument also merit consideration.

Ninebanks comes off a third-place in the 1 1/8-mile Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 27. He encountered minor traffic problems in the lane after a rail trip and was nosed out for second by Fateful Dream. Mister Acpen got an easy lead and went wire to wire in the race.

Ninebanks turned in a solid effort while possibly on the cusp of his distance limitations. He will prefer Sunday's slightly shorter distance.

Bonaguil's victory was his first since coming to America from England late last year. The optional claimer, on Oct. 5, was his first start since a July 25 outing at Del Mar. While the five-horse race set up for him - several runners, including Surprise Halo, set a surprisingly brisk pace - Bonaguil's late charge to win by six lengths was impressive.

"We always thought he could be a pretty decent horse," said Scott Chaney, assistant to trainer Darrell Vienna. "He ran to expectations up there. He probably likes the course up there better because it's not as fast as the courses in Southern California."

Vienna kept Bonaguil at Bay Meadows and actually came up to watch his lone work since the race, an easy 1:14.40 drill at six furlongs on Oct. 19.

There figures to be some pace for both Ninebanks and Bonaguil to run at, with Vallarta breaking from the rail and Colony Lane from the outside 10 post.

One horse who won't be going early this time is Surprise Halo, said his owner-trainer Dennis Ward.

Another local contender is Aly Bubba, who will be making his third start off a layoff after trailing both Ninebanks and Surprise Halo in the Cal Turf and Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup. All three will bypass the Nov. 8 Cal Cup for this race.