05/05/2004 11:00PM

Defending champ well rested

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Away from the races an entire year, Hombre Rapido could have taken a path of little resistance for a comeback. Trainer John Sadler had other ideas: "I didn't want to waste one."

Rather than ease back into competition, Hombre Rapido dives into the deep end Saturday at Hollywood Park, returning in the Grade 3 . It's an ambitious spot for a horse who has not started since last May 8, when he won this race by a length. His trainer is confident a repeat is within reach.

"Who could have him more ready than me?" Sadler said without sounding boastful. It's what handicappers have come to expect. Sadler layoff runners frequently are ready, particularly when pointed to a specific race, and Hombre Rapido has aimed to the L.A. Times. The layoff is less of a concern than the key question, which is, is the horse is good enough?

Hombre Rapido was good enough in the L.A. Times last spring, but this group is tougher and includes likely favorite Marino Marini.

A racing-fit sprinter, Marino Marini comes off a good third in the Grade 2 Commonwealth at Keene-land, which was his first start since undergoing throat surgery. On Saturday, Marino Marini and Hombre Rapido are the 119-pound highweights in the L.A. Times. Also on the card are the $350,000 Jim Murray Handicap and Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap.

Eleven entered the L.A. Times, but the field will be smaller if a two-other-than allowance race fills for Sunday. At least five of the stakes entrants are eligible for the easier spot Sunday, but not Hombre Rapido or Marino Marini, who stand out in the $150,000 L.A. Times, which also includes Sadler's late-runner Hasty Kris, Seattle Shamus, Cayoke, and Summer Service as contenders.

The Doug O'Neill-trained Marino Marini followed a runner-up finish Dec. 26 in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes with a runner-up finish Feb. 1 in a Grade 2. A breathing problem was blamed for his last-place finish March 7, after which he underwent corrective surgery.

It worked. Shipped to Keeneland, Marino Marini returned to form April 10 with a creditable third going seven furlongs. He cuts back to six furlongs Saturday, the distance at which he earned a 111 Beyer Speed Figure three starts back.

Tyler Baze rides the 3-for-14 Marino Marini, whose current form and ability to cope with an intense pace give him the edge. Hombre Rapido, a front-runner, will not be a pushover, however. Hombre Rapido came out of his L.A. Times win last year with a foot problem, and when he resumed training at Del Mar, Sadler said, "he just wasn't the same horse."

Hombre Rapido received the best antidote - time off. When he resumed training, Sadler recognized Hombre Rapido was as good as ever, and pointed him toward a defense of the L.A. Times title. Jose Valdivia rides Hombre Rapido, whose 107 Beyer last year would be good enough. Hombre Rapido has won 5 of 20 starts.

Hasty Kris is a closer who has won 6 of 33. "If they melt up front, he could one of the ones," Sadler said. Other entrants include Pohave, Revello, Our Bobby V., T S Eliot, and Kewen.