05/31/2001 11:00PM

General Challenge back at track

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - General Challenge, one of the nation's top older horses last year, has resumed training at Santa Anita under trainer Bob Baffert.

A 5-year-old owned by John and Betty Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm, General Challenge won the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in 2000, but has not started since finishing fourth in the Pacific Classic last August, a race he won as a 3-year-old in 1999.

In recent weeks, General Challenge has been trained at San Luis Rey Downs by Jim Maple, who operates a stable for the Mabees. General Challenge worked five furlongs for Maple last week and is scheduled to work for Baffert this weekend at Santa Anita.

"He looks great," Baffert said. "He got in on Monday."

Baffert said General Challenge's goal is the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 19. A prep race at Hollywood Park or Del Mar is being considered. The logical spots, both at 1 1/16 miles, are the $150,000 Bel Air Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 7 or the $250,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on July 29.

"We're taking our time," he said. "I'd like to run him at Hollywood Park. Maybe at the end of the meet, we'll get a race into him."

A winner of 9 of 18 starts and $2,876,018, General Challenge was one of the nation's top 3-year-olds in 1999, the year he won the Santa Anita Derby.

"When he's right, he's as good as any horse I've had," Baffert said.

Last year Early Pioneer was General Challenge's main nemesis, scoring upsets in the San Bernardino Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. They may meet again this summer.

On Wednesday, Early Pioneer is scheduled to make his 2001 debut in the $75,000 Ack Ack Stakes at Hollywood Park. Run for non-winners of a graded stakes this year, the Ack Ack is run over 7 1/2 furlongs, a one-turn race at Hollywood.

The Ack Ack is expected include Big Ten (the winner of the 2000 Californian Stakes) and Elaborate (the winner of the 2000 Triple Bend Handicap) as well as Hasty Kris, Saint Wynn, and Smile Again.

"It looks like a tough spot for $75,000," said Vladimir Cerin, who trains Early Pioneer. "We have to start somewhere."

Early Pioneer worked five furlongs Friday in 1:00.20 under jockey Victor Espinoza.

Cerin thinks Early Pioneer is close to race-ready fitness, but admits that the 6-year-old gelding sometimes sloughs off in his workouts.

"It's hard to say because he doesn't give his all in his works," Cerin said. "He's been outworked by eight claimers and maidens. His workouts are not a priority, but mints are."

At that moment, Early Pioneer was being walked by a stable employee past the spot where Cerin was standing. The gelding stopped, noticed what Cerin had in his hand, and quickly devoured a small mint.

Stevens riding in New York

Gary Stevens, the regular rider of Preakness Stakes winner Point Given, will ride at Belmont Park from Thursday through Saturday next week, according to his agent, Tony Matos.

Stevens will not ride Wednesday at Hollywood Park, the day he is scheduled to travel. Stevens rides Point Given in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, and will return to Hollywood Park Sunday to ride White Heart in the $350,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap.

The Whittingham is one of two major stakes on the Sunday program, joined by the $500,000 Californian Stakes over 1 1/8 miles.

The Californian, a prep for the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 1, is expected to include Aptitude, City West, Futural, Irisheyesareflying and Skimming.

o Bob Moreno, a placing judge and member of the racing office staff at Santa Anita and Del Mar, has been named racing secretary for the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton.

As the first stop on the northern California fair circuit, the Stockton meeting will be held June 13 to 24.