03/05/2004 12:00AM

Burning Sun is hot new turf star

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PHOENIX - Sizing up the soft turf handicap division in the West, I wrote in my Feb. 22 column: "Odds are there's some European transplant nibbling away in the barn of Neil Drysdale or Bobby Frankel just waiting to explode onto the scene, as Storming Home did last year. It's ripe for the plucking."

We didn't wait long for it to happened, only until last Sunday.

My premise that the West's top turf horse had yet to run was based on the fact that there was a vacuum at the top. Storming Home is gone. Redattore is out with an injured ankle. Johar is only beginning to work his way back, and The Tin Man is on the farm recuperating.

Trainer Bobby Frankel did not let me down. In a 1 1/8-mile optional claimer last Sunday at Santa Anita, out came those familiar Juddmonte Farms silks on Burning Sun. As a 3-year-old in England in 2002, Burning Sun had steadily moved up the ladder, going from a couple near-wins in maiden races to winning a listed stakes, then taking a Group 2 stakes in France. He then finished third, beaten by a head by Highdown in another Group 2 stakes at Deauville.

He resurfaced a couple months later in the Group 1 Champion Stakes at Newmarket, and despite facing such proven Group 1 horses as Storming Home, Moon Ballad, Noverre, Kaieteur, and Equerry, Burning Sun was bet down to the 5-1 third choice. But he finished last as something obviously went wrong, and was done for the year.

He regrouped for the 2003 campaign, and surely big things were expected - but it wasn't to be. He ran decently in his first race back, but his form deteriorated. A dismal 0-for-3 record was all he managed to produce last year.

So Burning Sun showed up with Frankel in the U.S., a horse in need of a change and one who could take advantage, very much like last year's buzz horse out West, Storming Home.

It wasn't so much that he won Sunday's race. On paper it may not look like much, as he got up by only a half-length, and his time of 1:51.11 for the 1 1/8 miles seems pedestrian, and his 93 Beyer Speed Figure seems ordinary. But it was the manner in which he won. He did it in a way that says this is a very good horse. He was last early and seemed to be going nowhere as late as the far turn. Once straightened away, however, he blasted home.

Though his clocking and Beyer weren't much, the course was listed as "good" after days of torrential rains. The fractions of 50.80 seconds, 1:15.36, and 1:39.38 show how slow the turf course played. Yet Burning Sun powered his final eighth-mile under Alex Solis in 11.73 seconds. Considering the give in the course, this is an amazing split.

And he did not work hard to get into position. He strolled for the first six furlongs or so and really only ran hard for about three-eighths of a mile.

Frankel probably got exactly what he wanted out of this race. He got this son of Danzig back on track. He got him fit and feeling good, and he knows now what he has under the hood. It gives him all kinds of options. Burning Sun could run in the Grade 2, $500,000 Mervyn Muniz at Fair Grounds (formerly the Explosive Bid) on March 21, or the Grade 2 Arcadia at Santa Anita on April 3. From there he can target the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve on the Kentucky Derby undercard at Churchill Downs on May 1.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Just two years ago, Frankel unleashed another Juddmonte/

European juggernaut named Beat Hollow, who won his U.S. debut at Santa Anita smartly, nearly won the Explosive Bid, then won the Woodford Reserve, Manhattan, and Arlington Million for a great 2002 season. Frankel has the same potential here in Burning Sun.

Unless he's got someone else in the barn that we don't yet know about.

Casas Caballo one to fear

Sunday's Grade 2 San Carlos gives Bluesthestandard a chance to take a stranglehold of the sprint division in the West. And if Bluesthestandard's big recent form and love of Santa Anita doesn't already scare his foes, this should: He worked a sizzling 57.60 early this week in preparation for the race.

"It didn't surprise me," trainer Ted H. West said. "He works fast, but he's like knocking a second off the times he used to work. He's just better right now. Every work is a half a second or a second faster than he ever used to work, with the same amount of ease. It's just an indication that he's getting better. This is the best he's ever come into a race for us."

Still, Casas Caballo may be ready to show what all the fuss was about last year. After a romping maiden win by him, there was discussion about a possible Breeders' Cup Sprint berth. Nn ailment knocked him out of action, however, until this winter. He came back a bit dull at first, finishing sixth on New Year's Day, but then looked super with a big win at Santa Anita on Jan. 24. He earned a 103 Beyer that day and appears headed back in the direction that last year had those behind him thinking Breeders' Cup.

And with Bluesthestandard likely to get hammered at the windows Sunday, it might be the perfect time to find out whether Casas Caballo has what it takes to run with the West's sprint king.