03/06/2008 1:00AM

Could this finally be Neko Bay's year?


ARCADIA, Calif. - Over the past two years, Neko Bay has threatened to become a top horse. Problem is, every time he appears ready to do something important, he disappears.

Neko Bay has compiled as many wins (three) as layoff lines in his six-race past performances. But sooner or later, the 5-year-old might put together an entire season for trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss. If he does, look out.

"We've been very patient with him, hoping we can have a big campaign," Shirreffs said. "This would be the year."

Neko Bay will make the second start of another comeback Saturday at Santa Anita, switching to the main track for the $75,000 Santana Mile. Based on a solid runner-up comeback Feb. 10, when he missed by 1 1/4 lengths in the fastest turf mile of the meet (1:33.34), Neko Bay is expected to start favored over Hello Sunday and Monzante.

Eight older horses are entered in the Santana Mile, race 7 on the Santa Anita Oaks card, and Shirreffs hopes the race sets up Neko Bay for a spring-summer campaign that includes consecutive races. That is never a certainty. After winning 2 of his first 3 starts, Neko Bay has had three layoffs - eight months, two months, and 10 months.

"He's kind of light-bodied, he's not real heavy, and we've had to be real patient to let him fully mature," Shirreffs said.

Neko Bay has earned Beyer Speed Figures of 100 or more his last three starts.

Mike Smith rides the closer, who, Shirreffs said, probably "needed the race" when he finished second last time. Improvement is expected.

Neko Bay's main rival is Hello Sunday, who stretches out after a seventh-place finish in a turf sprint.

"A mile should be perfect," trainer Bobby Frankel said, noting that "they ran a little too fast for him" in his last start.

An import from France, Hello Sunday has won 1 of 8 in the United States. His best effort was a third-place finish last summer in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Monzante drops out of the Grade 2 Strub Stakes, while the 2006 Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Magnum will be racing for the first time since fall of that year.

Other starters in the Santana include the entry of Plug Me In and Smooth and Savvy, as well as Billy Allen and Sweet Roberto.

Country Star working for comeback

Country Star missed both Grade 1 races for 3-year-old fillies this winter at Santa Anita, including the Oaks on Saturday, but the top filly in California has returned to work and is aiming for a comeback on April 5 in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

"I missed a lot of time with her when she got a temperature, but all things are good now," said Frankel, the filly's trainer, on Thursday morning.

And a few minutes after 8 a.m., Country Star worked five furlongs under exercise rider Jose Dominguez in a slow 1:02.80.

Frankel said he probably would pick up the tempo by working Country Star in company next time. She was by herself Thursday, and never seriously asked by Dominguez.

"There is plenty of time," Frankel said, "I can get five works into her to get her ready for the Ashland."

Country Star was 3 for 3 last year, including two Grade 1's. Rafael Bejarano rode her in all three starts.

Champs Elysee to Whittingham

Champs Elysees, the Frankel trainee who finished a troubled third in the Santa Anita Handicap, is expected to return to grass for his next start before he tries again on synthetic. Making his first start on the main track, Champs Elysees finished third in the Big Cap after breaking slowly, racing on a dead rail, and weaving through traffic in the lane.

Frankel said Champs Elysees would aim to the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap June 7 at 1 1/4 miles on the Hollywood turf. He did not rule out running him back in the Hollywood Gold Cup three weeks later on June 28, although Frankel said he would prefer a month between races.

Frankel said he will play it by ear.

"He's a fresh horse, he's only run twice this year, and he seems to like the all-weather," he said.

Zenyatta a go for Santa Margarita

The uncertain status of Zenyatta was partially clarified Thursday when the unbeaten filly galloped at Hollywood. The 9 a.m. gallop was good enough, and trainer John Shirreffs entered Zenyatta against Nashoba's Key in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap, which will be run Sunday at Santa Anita.

Zenyatta has won all three of her starts in impressive style, but her participation in the Santa Margarita was tentative after she missed some training time with an undisclosed setback.

"She galloped well," Shirreffs said. "If everything stays the same, she'll run."

A field of eight fillies and mares entered the $300,000 Santa Margarita, led by the 122-pound highweight Nashoba's Key, who drew the outside post. In addition to Zenyatta, the field includes Grade 1 Santa Maria winner Double Trouble; the Grade 2 El Encino winner Dawn after Dawn; and longshots Sweet Belle, Good Mood, Say You Will and Down.

* Thousand Words, the Frankel trainee who won the fastest turf mile of the meet Feb. 10, beating Neko Bay in a third-level allowance, is aiming for the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile on April 11 at Keeneland.

* Brother Derek worked seven furlongs Thursday at Santa Anita in 1:25.40 as he nears a comeback for trainer Dan Hendricks.