11/09/2001 12:00AM

Bray is back with turf horse Fighting Falcon

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PHOENIX - You can excuse Simon Bray if he hasn't exactly been doing cartwheels lately.

Just three or four months ago, he was riding high. His trainees Startac and Astra were of championship quality. Startac, once considered Derby timber, validated his quality with a game Secretariat win. Astra didn't handle the bog-like turf course at Arlington in the Beverly D., but she was favored for a reason - she had been monstrous out West.

Then the roof fell in. The Allen Paulson Estate horses, including Astra and Startac, were removed from Bray's care. He not only lost his best stock, but did so despite being successful. Rebuilding would not be easy.

But rebuild and restock he has, and again there is a bit of a hop in his step. Things could get even more upbeat Sunday in the Steinlen Handicap at Hollywood Park when Bray sends out Fighting Falcon for the 1 1/16-mile turf event.

"I've had him for a couple of months," said Bray Thursday of the 5-year-old horse who was transferred to him from the Wally Dollase barn by owner Dion Recachina. "He has been training well. He looks absolutely fantastic. Looking at the past performances, his best races seem to be from off the pace."

Fighting Falcon, who has earned $447,705, has run some of his best races over the Hollywood course. He won the 1999 Cinema Handicap for trainer David Hofmans, and finished third in the 1999 Hollywood Derby and second in the 2001 American Handicap for Dollase.

A son of Manila, Fighting Falcon was last seen in the Fourstardave at Saratoga Aug. 25. He ended up fourth, beaten by just 1 1/2 lengths. It has been a long time since his last win - in the Cinema here in June 1999 - and he raced just once in all of 2000. But his form this year shows he hasn't lost much. He figures to be quite playable Sunday.

But he will need all his oomph. Kudos, for example, will be tough to handle. Kudos, a 4-year-old son of Kris S., has been a different horse since being gelded. He won a tough nonwinners-of-two over this course in the summer, then won the Jim Murray and was a good second in the Grade 2 Sunset. He threw in a rare dud in the Del Mar Handicap, but came right back with an excellent fourth in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Handicap at Santa Anita Sept. 30, beaten just two lengths by top-class runners Senure and White Heart, and stablemate Cagney, who came back closing week of Santa Anita to win the Henry P. Russell.

Kudos's main weapon is his tactical speed. That makes him a must-use.

There are other threats to consider. Julio Canani, who we're used to seeing with major middle-distance turfers like Val Royal, Silic, Tuzla, Tranquility Lake, may unleash Special Ring, a European import who has raced just once in the U.S., an excellent second over the same course in May in a tough nonwinners-of-three. Special Ring was Grade 3-placed in France, and he blasted home in his U.S. debut showing ample ability. Canani, of course, can get them ready off the bench. His work with Val Royal and Silic proves that.

Another interesting entrant is Lonesome Dude. This 6-year-old was good enough to get a shot at the Grade 1 Atto Mile back in 1999, though he wasn't a factor that day.

He wasn't seen again for over a year. After a good try down the hill at Santa Anita in October 2000, he again disappeared. He reemerged this past June here at Hollywood. His first couple of races back were understandably so-so, but in August at Del Mar he awakened with a big effort in the Brubaker, finishing third, beaten just a neck at 25-1. He came right back Sept. 5 in the Live the Dream at 10-1 and proved a game winner.

He looked like he was all the way back, so his connections went for the brass ring; they tried the Grade 2 Oak Tree BC Mile. Lonesome Dude was no match for Val Royal and Thady Quill and he finished a badly beaten seventh.

Obviously he can't handle that caliber, but so long as that race didn't knock him for a loop he's a much better fit at this level.

It's a deep, competitive field but my lean would be to key Fighting Falcon, particularly since he doesn't figure to be favored and may go off at 9-2. I'll use him in exactas with Kudos, Special Ring, and Lonesome Dude in the hope that not only is he well overdue for a victory, but his trainer is due to get a little back, too.