02/12/2003 12:00AM

Debonair Joe tries softer spot

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ARCADIA, Calif. - After a remarkable December campaign in which he pulled upsets in two graded stakes, former claimer Debonair Joe returns to a more modest level of competition in a $70,000 allowance race at Santa Anita on Friday.

The winner of the Grade 3 Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park at 52-1 on Dec. 7 and the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26 at 26-1, Debonair Joe returns following a sixth in the Sunshine Millions Sprint on Jan. 25.

"He came out of that race pretty sharp," trainer Juan Pablo Silva said. "I'm expecting him to run a big race."

The one-mile distance will be a test for Debonair Joe, a 4-year-old. If he runs well against his four opponents, Silva will consider him for the $100,000 Crystal Water Handicap for California-breds over a mile on turf on March 23.

"I think he can run a mile," Silva said. "He's training really good. If he runs well, we'll run in the Crystal Water."

Debonair Joe's company in Friday's race is not inconsiderable: His four rivals are all capable of appearing in stakes.

Cottage won three allowance races at Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park last fall. At this meeting, he has been unplaced in the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps.

Skip to the Stone won the 2001 Bay Shore Stakes, but is winless in his last eight starts.

Jimmy Z won the Forty Niner Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on Nov. 29, but returned to finish fourth in the Lafayette Handicap at that track on Jan. 1.

National Saint was a troubled third in a seven-furlong allowance race on Jan. 10. He is winless in his last nine starts, dating back to an allowance race for sprinters here in January 2001.

"I don't think the race is tough," Silva said. "I think Jimmy Z is the horse to beat."

Debonair Joe has raced in sprints since Silva and owner Lynne Ristad-Lidgett claimed him for $12,500 at Fairplex Park in September. At 2, Debonair Joe started at 1 1/16 miles twice, finishing third in the Gateway to Glory Stakes at Fairplex Park and fourth in the California Cup Juvenile.

On Friday, Debonair Joe will be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, a replacement for Julie Krone, who was aboard for the three recent stakes. Silva said he wanted a jockey who could commit to the Crystal Water, and that Krone had a previous commitment.

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