07/17/2003 11:00PM

Distance may help Cagney

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It would take longer than the running time of Sunday's $150,000 Sunset Handicap, a 1 1/2-mile turf race, to explain fully the circumstances surrounding the eight-race losing streak that has plagued Cagney.

"We've got a whole book of excuses," trainer Richard Mandella said.

Mandella is hoping that Cagney can revive his career in the Grade 2 Sunset Handicap. A 6-year-old, Cagney has not won since the Grade 3 Carleton Burke Handicap at Santa Anita in October 2001.

The Sunset Handicap is the top race on a 10-race program on the final day of the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. Del Mar opens its popular meeting on Wednesday.

The Sunset Handicap drew nine entrants, including the mare Tifonica, who will face males for the first time. Cagney and Continental Red, the 2002 California-bred horse of the year, are the 116-pound highweights. Continental Red won the Quicken Tree Stakes for statebreds on June 15 over the same course and distance as the Sunset Handicap.

Mandella expects a big race from Cagney, and thinks that the distance will suit the horse. In his last start, Cagney was a fast-closing third in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap over 1 1/4 miles, finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind Storming Home, perhaps the top turf horse in the country. Storming Home, trained by Neil Drysdale, is passing the Sunset Handicap in favor of the Arlington Million next month.

The distance also should work in favor of Nazirali, who was fourth in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap over about 1 3/4 miles on turf in April, and Asong for Billy, who was pulling away at the finish of an allowance race over 1 1/4 miles on turf on June 22.

Asong for Billy led throughout that race, but in the Sunset will be chasing Night Patrol, who was fourth in the Whittingham. Trainer Paul Aguirre is optimistic that Asong for Billy can handle the distance. "The distance is the question," Aguirre said. "I assume he doesn't have to be on the lead."

Continental Red was second in the 2002 Sunset Handicap and ended a three-race losing streak in his last start. Trainer Ian Jory described the Quicken Tree as an ideal confidence-builder. "It couldn't have been better," he said.

How that form is reflected in open company will be known on Sunday.