11/11/2003 1:00AM

First a prep, then big money

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Neil Drysdale was concerned early Tuesday morning that a crucial race for Sarafan on Thursday would not fill, so he decided to help his cause by entering a second horse. Some cajoling from Hollywood Park's racing office with other trainers paid off, too, and a five-horse field was cobbled together, much to Drysdale's relief.

Drysdale is planning on sending Sarafan to Asia later this month for the Japan Cup on Nov. 30 and the Hong Kong Cup two weeks later. Drysdale had intended to run Sarafan in last month's Breeders' Cup Mile, but Sarafan had a poor blood count on the eve of the race and was withdrawn.

That setback made Thursday's race critical in Drysdale's eyes.

"I was concerned this morning," Drysdale said Tuesday afternoon, after the race filled and was slotted as the third on the card. "I wanted to get a race into him. He hasn't run in some time."

Sarafan finished second in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 4. "From Oct. 4 to Nov. 30 is close to two months," Drysdale said. "He's quite a heavy horse. Rather than work him to excess, this is much better for him."

Sarafan drew the rail and will carry top weight of 123 pounds in the 1 1/8-mile turf race. He will be a heavy favorite. His stablemate, Hataab, is next to him, followed by Mountain Rage, Justice Minister, and Harrisand.

Thursday's classified allowance race is worth $54,000, but Sarafan is looking at far more lucrative paydays in the next month. He was an unlucky loser in last year's Japan Cup, dropping a photo finish to Falbrav. And in the Hong Kong Cup, he got shuffled back to last behind an excruciatingly slow pace, then finished furiously in a deceptively strong effort.

This year, Sarafan has raced just four times.

"He's had a light campaign," Drysdale said. "We gave him plenty of time after he got back from Asia last year, and then he popped a splint after his first race this year in May. We've been playing catch-up all year."

The Breeders' Cup Mile marked another setback.

"He went dull," Drysdale said. "He never got sick, but his blood count was low, too low to run."

Hataab, Drysdale's other runner, has not raced since February. Mountain Rage was sixth in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile, only his second start this year. Justice Minister is still eligible for first-level allowance conditions. Harrisand has not raced since April.

* The promising Lady Annaliese heads the fifth race, a turf allowance for fillies and mares, and owner Michael Gill has his first California starter in the seventh race with Glick.