04/11/2006 12:00AM

Bouchard one to beat - once again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The weather forecast was wrong again. Rain was expected to wash out turf sprint racing this week at Santa Anita, but dry midweek weather allowed the racing office to pepper the Thursday card with three good downhill turf sprints.

Now comes the hard part. That is, predicting if a recent speed bias will continue in races 3, 5, and 7. Or, deciding if two closing winners Sunday in downhill sprints rules out bias as a handicapping factor.

In race 3, a maiden special weight for 3-year-olds, the pace scenario is murky to begin with. Unless also-eligible Shooter's Touch draws in, pacesetting chores are up for grabs. Too bad, because when Solid Fuel led gate to wire Sunday in race 5, he was the fourth gate-to-wire winner in a span of five downhill sprints. The final turf sprint Sunday was won by a closer.

makes his debut for trainer Neil Drysdale in race 3, and the son of Theatrical enters as the one to beat - again. Drysdale entered Bouchard in a similar race Jan. 7, but he was scratched because of a minor setback. He may prefer a longer distance than 6 1/2 furlongs, but by now Bouchard is ready to fire.

The colt resumed a steady work pattern in early March and has not missed a beat since. Garrett Gomez rides Bouchard, whose rivals include , third in his U.S. debut, and comebacker Dynamite.

was beaten double-digit lengths at long odds both starts, but there is at least one reason to expect improvement. A $375,000 yearling by Gone West, Gonestylin was gelded after a last-place finish Jan. 25. Trainer Rafael Becerra has noticed a difference.

"He's been more focused on his business," Becerra said. "I expect him to run better."

Race 5 is a first-level allowance for California-bred fillies and mares, and trainer Jeff Mullins holds the aces with closer Sweet Gazelle and front-runner Tizawood. Tizawood finished in front of Sweet Gazelle in a similar spot March 23, but for Tizawood it was a squandered opportunity.

She pressed slow fractions (22.51 and 44.31 seconds), and got worn down. Sweet Gazelle made up four lengths rallying from sixth to third, and ran at least as well as Tizawood. With more pace Thursday to run at, Sweet Gazelle is the one to beat.

Race 7 is a first-condition allowance led by Common Trust, who returns to turf, and Budget Surplus, who goes route to sprint.