06/18/2001 11:00PM

Bray-Frankel, Round One

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hollywood Park turf races at 1 1/4 miles this week go through trainers Simon Bray and Bobby Frankel, who hold a preliminary scuffle in the seventh-race feature Thursday, three days before Astra and Happyanunoit battle Sunday in the Grade 1 Beverly Hills Handicap at the same trip.

Although Astra is Bray's strongest starter, his improving allowance runner, Neki, also is the one to beat Thursday in a two-other-than allowance/optional $80,000 claimer. Bray's weeklong nemesis is Frankel, trainer of Happyanunoit, as well as Neki's main foe, the consistent 8-year-old Martiniquais. Other starters include front-running filly Satin Cat and South American import Loving, both trained by Neil Drysdale, and Continental Red.

Bray is confident Neki will improve off a troubled second-place finish 18 days ago at Bay Meadows. "That race moved him up, I trained him real light up to that race," he said. "He's going to run really good Thursday, the distance is what I've been waiting for and I've changed some things."

Bray said the addition of blinkers are "just to get him interested, to put himself into the race." Neki's style will not change - he is, after all, a stretch-runner. He is expected to be positioned closer to the lead, however, than the 12-length deficit he faced last time out.

In that race, Neki dropped back to last, then ran into a wall of horses while trying to rally on the far turn. After being stopped, he re-rallied and finished fastest of all on the inside. A 5-year-old by Theatrical, Neki has won 2 of 6. He is owned by Allen Paulson Living Trust, and will be ridden by Victor Espinoza.

If the distance favors Neki, it is dubious for Frankel's runner. Can Martiniquais stay 1 1/4 miles? "That's the only question, but he's easy to rate," Frankel said. Instructions to jockey Corey Nakatani will be "just sit there and wait as long as possible. My experience is that if they're easy to rate, they can get a mile and a quarter."

Martiniquais, owned by Edmund Gann, is the only horse entered for the $80,000 claim price. He has won 10 of 34. Recent results of allowance/optional claiming races here have favored veterans running for a tag. Eye Pea Oh was the only horse running for an $80,000 claiming price in a two-other-than June 14, and scored a $13 upset. Quake followed June 17 with a similar surprise. He was the only horse running for a $100,000 tag in a three-other-than/optional claimer, and paid $16.60.