03/01/2006 1:00AM

Chinese Dragon at crossroads

Benoit & Associates
Objective, winning the Hill Rise on Jan. 2, seeks his first graded stakes win Saturday in the Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Catalina at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Chinese Dragon is unbeaten in five starts in California since arriving from Ireland in late 2004. Four of those races were stakes, three were run at Santa Anita.

But there is a question of how ready Chinese Dragon is for Saturday's $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile, a Grade 1 race at a mile on turf that has drawn an outstanding field.

"This is, to me, a pivotal race in the horse's career," said trainer Bob Hess Jr.

Chinese Dragon breaks from post 3 in a field that includes Cacique, a highly respected French import; Aragorn, the winner of the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby last fall; Senor Swinger, Terroplane, and Toasted, the first three finishers in the Thunder Road Handicap on Feb. 8; and Willow O Wisp, a three-time stakes winner last year.

Horses with such outstanding form do not appear in Chinese Dragon's past performances.

"He hasn't beaten much," Hess said.

But Chinese Dragon, 4, cannot be easily dismissed in the Kilroe Mile. His wins in the Pasadena and La Puente stakes here on turf last spring were impressive - off-the-pace rallies that led to clear wins.

After winning a division of the Sir Beaufort Stakes by a nose here on Dec. 26, Chinese Dragon finished fifth by a length in the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap at Louisiana Downs on Jan. 21. Hess said he was frustrated by the loss.

"He had no excuses," Hess said. "He raced a little closer than before, but he flattened out. Everything was A-plus except his performance. It was very disappointing."

Chinese Dragon has won 6 of 9 starts and $282,492. He is seeking his first graded stakes win. Hess said he expects Chinese Dragon to rally from off the pace.

"I think he'll be at the back of the field, and he'll explode at the top of the stretch," Hess said.

Chinese Dragon's race in the Kilroe will dictate how he will be campaigned in coming months. A win will give Hess and the owners a reason to aim for the nation's top turf stakes at a mile. A bad loss would force them to search for easier spots.

House of Fortune's return indefinite

House of Fortune, the winner of $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28, is recovering from colic surgery at a Southern California veterinary clinic and faces an indefinite spell on the sidelines, trainer Ron McAnally said.

House of Fortune, 5, was stricken in the weeks after the Sunshine Millions Distaff, in which she scored her seventh stakes win.

"It wasn't real serious," McAnally said. "They said she had a twisted colon. She's at the clinic. We decided to leave her there. We didn't want to take any chances."

Owned by Arnold Zetcher, House of Fortune has won 8 of 22 starts and $989,185. She ended a 10-race losing streak with a win in the Cat's Cradle Handicap at Hollywood Park in December.

The Sunshine Millions Distaff was the richest win of her career. McAnally said he was not sure how long House of Fortune would remain at Chino Valley Equine Hospital in Chino, Calif., or how much time off she would need before resuming training.

"You don't know until you get them back to the barn," he said.

Objective facing off with the best

Objective, the runner-up in the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on Jan. 29, joined trainer Peter Miller's stable at San Luis Rey Downs in San Diego County last month. He makes his first start for Miller in Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes, a race that will show where Objective ranks among the nation's 3-year-olds.

While Objective has yet to win a graded stakes, he faces a Santa Catalina field led by Brother Derek, the winner of three important stakes and the top contender for the Kentucky Derby.

"To me, Brother Derek is the best 3-year-old in the country," Miller said. "That's my opinion. This could be a good little barometer for us."

Miller, 39, has a 28-horse stable, which includes some horses returning from layoffs that are being prepared for other trainers.

Objective is one of several horses Miller has for owner-breeder Jim McIngvale of Houston. Thursday, McIngvale and Miller had Actxecutive entered in an optional claimer over a mile.

Objective, was previously trained by Tom Roberts in northern California. Objective needed four races to win his maiden and then won the Hill Rise Stakes over a mile on a sloppy track here in his second start in a stakes. In the El Camino Real Derby, he had a clear lead to the top of the stretch and finished three-quarters of a length behind Cause to Believe.

"I think he wants to go a mile and a quarter," said Miller. "He ran two really good races and he's improving."

Miller said that Objective is "one-dimensional."

"We'll be on the lead," he said. "He doesn't like to be taken a hold of."

There are nine 3-year-olds entered in the Santa Catalina. Brother Derek drew post 7, one spot to the outside of Objective. Hawkinsville, the runner-up in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 4, drew the rail.

Atlando eyes stakes in Hong Kong

Atlando, the winner of the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap on Sunday, is likely to make his next start in the $1.8 million Queen Elizabeth Stakes in Hong Kong on April 23, trainer Darrell Vienna said.

Atlando could stay at Santa Anita for the $250,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap at about 1 3/4 miles on turf on April 23, but Vienna said he is concerned about the toll that race would take on the horse.

Vienna said he hasn't decided which race to aim for, but said even though the trip to the Far East could be taxing on Atlando, the potential prize makes the race attractive.

"If you're taking the same toll and the purse is [considerably more], it's not a tough decision," he said.

Atlando has won 6 of 16 starts and $332,765. The San Luis Obispo was his third stakes win, and first in California.

Talullah Lula retired at 3

The 3-year-old filly Talullah Lula, runner-up by a nose in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes, has been retired after suffering an unspecified injury while finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 11, according to trainer Bob Baffert. A daughter of Old Trieste owned by Natalie Baffert and Gary Garber, Tallulah Lula won one race and $95,940 from eight starts.

- additional reporting by Brad Free