04/23/2003 11:00PM

Distance the key to Snow Chief

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Excessivepleasure will try to lead from start to finish Saturday in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes for 3-year-olds. But the richest race on the California Gold Rush card at Hollywood Park is no lock for one of the most heavily fancied runners on the card.

At 1 1/8 miles, the Snow Chief is a virtual marathon for Excessivepleasure.

"It's the farthest he's ever gone, obviously, but [Hollywood] has made a conscious effort to make it a fast, fair track," trainer Doug O'Neill said. In fact, the final times on Wednesday's opening-day card were quicker than usual and suggest Hollywood's main track might be more widely accepted than the slow, tiring surface of past meets.

Excessivepleasure, fully extended to win a 1 1/16-mile race over a speed-favoring track at Sunland Park in his last start, will be challenged Saturday going nine furlongs.

The handicapping dilemma is finding an alternative to the best horse in the race. There aren't many choices in the nine-horse field.

Chief Planner stretches out in distance following a good comeback sprint, and proven two-turn closer Winning Stripes faced decent stakes company in northern California. The others are nondescript and include front-runner Uncle Jack, Tiz a Coup, Bold N Broke, Clover Situation, Guaritta, and Star of Grace.

Excessivepleasure, owned by Lee and Ty Leatherman, is the most accomplished member of the field. The son of In Excess has raced five times with three wins and two seconds, for earnings of $442,502. He scored his biggest win May 30 at Sunland, winning the $500,000 WinStar Derby.

O'Neill was prepared to give him a break after that race, but Excessivepleasure came back too well.

"He's held his weight, he breezed good, and against Cal-breds for that much money, it makes sense," O'Neill said.

Notwithstanding five races in which he earned Beyer Speed Figures in the 90's, Excessivepleasure is vulnerable at nine furlongs. In all five starts, he has smoked the opening half-mile in 45 seconds or less, an enterprising style not normally conducive to route racing. In addition, Excessivepleasure was not flattered when the two horses he beat at Sunland returned to lose their next starts.

If the best horse in the Snow Chief, to be run as Saturday's fourth race, is vulnerable, the Bob Baffert-trained Chief Planner may be poised to upset. Owned by Golden Eagle Farm, the son of General Meeting was one of the top 2-year-olds in California last summer. Chief Planner finished third in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile, second in the Grade 3 Best Pal, and third in the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity. Turned out with sore shins, he did not return until March 30, when he closed late and finished second in a sprint for Cal-breds.

"I'd like to have another race or two in him, but he's training well," Baffert said. Evidence of the trainer's strong record going from sprint to route was illustrated in the Santa Anita Derby. Said Baffert: "It's asking a lot [going sprint to route], but it didn't seem bother Indian Express." Baffert added that he thinks Chief Planner "will give a good account of himself."