03/12/2004 1:00AM

Epicentre will be closing fast

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ALBANY, Calif. - Turf racing at Golden Gate Fields usually means big fields and tight finishes, and Sunday's $125,000 Grade 3 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap should fit the model.

Nine will run the 1 1/8 miles on the Lakeside Turf Course in this meet's premier race for older horses.

While it is a solid field, only the Wally Dollase-trained Mananan McLir has a graded stakes victory in the U.S., the Grade 2 American Derby at Arlington in 2002.

Tronare, trained by Kristin Mulhall, was a Group 2 winner in his native Chile, but is looking for his first U.S. victory.

Gold Ruckus, perhaps the horse of the meeting here, is the only other runner with an American stakes victory, but the field is graded stakes-quality nonetheless.

The Bobby Frankel-trained highweight Epicentre was first under the wire in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup last November only to be disqualified and placed third. He came back to score a head victory over one of his Sunday rivals, Gent, in a $100,000 optional claimer on Feb. 20 at Santa Anita. The Eduardo Inda-trained Gent makes his stakes debut in this race.

Soud, trained by Neil Drysdale, is coming off a victory in a $100,000 optional claimer, and will be making his stakes debut Sunday.

Bring Home Thegold finished third to stablemate Gold Ruckus in the Lafayette Handicap here on New Year's Day for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

How easily Soud is allowed to run early could determine the outcome of the race. He rated nicely in winning his comeback at a mile and finished strong with a sub-24-second final quarter. He has two seconds and a third in four tries at the distance, and is strictly the one to catch.

Stablemates Bring Home Thegold and Gold Ruckus along with Tronare could make up the second flight early - with Epicentre, Mananan McLir, Gent, and Aly Bubba sitting closest to them.

Epicentre was game in the stretch in his past two starts. Gent finished best after a wide trip, despite losing the photo to Epicentre in their last start.

Gold Ruckus won four straight after returning from a fractured shoulder suffered early last year, but he has been outfinished in his past two starts while running third in the Tanforan Handicap and second in the San Carlos.

Aly Bubba, who finished second in the Tanforan for trainer Holly Evans, comes off a much-improved try and can fire in the lane as well.