01/23/2004 1:00AM

Ciento playing it safe and winning


SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - The $125,000-added New Mexico State University Handicap, to be contested Sunday by statebred 4-year-olds and up over a two-turn mile, may shape up as simply one more jewel in Ciento's crown. A winner of seven of his last nine starts, Ciento has enjoyed a four-race win streak since his only real rival among the division, Star Smasher, was retired last summer.

Trainer Dick Cappellucci has managed Ciento's career conservatively, gearing Ciento's agenda toward the big purses of the Sunland meet and racing him exclusively against fellow New Mexico-breds. The approach has worked - Ciento has a lifetime record of 16 wins from 29 starts, with $632,014 in earnings, as Cappellucci has maximized Ciento's opportunities without running the well dry.

Ciento, a 6-year-old owned by Arden Hawkins and Glen Robertson, has been assigned 127 pounds for the NMSU, the most he has ever carried. After witnessing his last two starts, however, few can doubt that he is up to the task. In the City of Sunland Park and Johnie L. Jamison Handicaps, Ciento drew outside posts, was hung wide, and still proved best. Breaking from the 12 hole in the Jamison, Ciento looked beaten entering the stretch but rallied under Sal Gonzalez Jr. to get up on the wire. Ciento will break from post 5 under Gonzalez.

Ciento has beaten every horse entered in the NMSU, which has a field of nine, but all of his opponents have credentials that make them an interesting exacta play. Three 4-year-olds have finished second to Ciento in his three starts at this meet, and any of them could improve to pose a threat. In the Dec. 14 Jamison, Hesa Bad Cat took a clear lead past the sixteenth, only to be run down in the final yards.

A multiple stakes winner at sprint distances, Hesa Bad Cat has never raced beyond 6 1/2 furlongs but could get loose on the lead. Quote This ran a similar race when he finished second to Ciento in an allowance Nov. 28 and also has never raced two turns. Casperino finished second to Ciento in the 1 1/16-mile City of Sunland Park and already has stakes wins at a distance.

Casperino, a stalker, has drawn the outside post with a short run into the first turn.