07/07/2005 12:00AM

Gold Cup: Limehouse vs. rest of the West

Limehouse goes for his third consecutive victory and his first Grade 1 stakes win in Saturday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Just when the cast that chased Rock Hard Ten all winter at Santa Anita thought they had Saturday's $750,000 to themselves, an Eastern invader in Limehouse is threatening to plunder the race.

Since Rock Hard Ten won the Santa Anita Handicap in March, there has been no standout in the California handicap division.

In Saturday's Grade 1 Gold Cup over 1 1/4 miles, Limehouse, facing nine locally based rivals, will try for his third consecutive victory. The best chances among the home team belong to Congrats, who was second in the Santa Anita Handicap; Lava Man, who won the Grade 2 Californian on June 18; and Keep on Punching, a rapidly improving 4-year-old who is making his stakes debut.

Limehouse, trained in New York by Todd Pletcher, won the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs in May and the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park on June 11. Owned by Dogwood Stable, Limehouse has yet to win a Grade 1 stakes in his 17-race career, the primary reason for his appearance in the Gold Cup.

"That's part of the reason we're going there. We feel like the horse is in good form," Pletcher said. "Now is the appropriate time to step up and take a chance."

Still, Pletcher is respectful of the competition.

"They might read easier on paper than they are," he said.

The Gold Cup is the eighth race on a 10-race program that begins at 1:20 p.m. Pacific. There are two other stakes on the card: the $400,000 Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds and the $150,000 A Gleam Handicap for female sprinters. There is a $1 million guaranteed pool for the pick six.

The Gold Cup is being run as a handicap for the first time since 1996. Plagued by short fields in recent years, the race has drawn 10 entrants. If they all start, Saturday's field will be the largest since Best Pal beat nine rivals in 1993.

Lava Man is the 118-pound starting highweight, carrying one pound more than Congrats and Limehouse.

The Gold Cup is Lava Man's first start in a Grade 1 since he finished a game second in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes last December. After three losses in statebred races in the winter and spring, Lava Man rebounded to win an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles in May and pull an upset at 8-1 in the Californian over 1 1/8 miles.

The Gold Cup will be the first start at 1 1/4 miles for Lava Man, who races near the front.

"It seems speed does better the longer you go. I don't think it will be a problem," trainer Doug O'Neill said of the distance. "If we get beat, I don't think it will be because of the mile and a quarter."

Congrats was beaten 1 3/4 lengths by Rock Hard Ten in the Santa Anita Handicap and later finished fifth in the 1 1/4-mile Dubai World Cup in Dubai in late March.

Congrats, like Rock Hard Ten, is trained by Richard Mandella. While Rock Hard Ten is currently in light training recovering from a sore back, Congrats has been stakes-placed at this meeting. He was second in the Ack Ack Handicap over 7 1/2 furlongs on June 11.

"He's had his race and he's ready to go," Mandella said.

If Congrats, Lava Man, and Limehouse all falter, the race is wide-open. Musique Toujours won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at 70-1 in January. Al Arz, a Grade 2 stakes winner in Brazil last year, is making his U.S. stakes debut. Keep on Punching has steadily improved through a three-race winning streak that began in April.

Musique Toujours is making his first start since finishing eighth in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds in March. The layoff was caused by a quarter crack.

The absence of a standout has made the Gold Cup an attractive opportunity to his trainer, John Sadler.

"Maybe this isn't the strongest of fields, so you want to give it a shot," he said. "I think Congrats is the horse to beat. How many horses can go a mile and a quarter?"

The field

Hollywood Gold Cup
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1LimehouseJ. Velazquez1172-1
2BorregoG. Gomez1156-1
3Deputy LadJ. Court11220-1
4Pt's Grey EagleC. Nakatani11315-1
5Anziyan RoyaltyA. Solis1158-1
6CongratsT. Baze1174-1
7Lava ManP. Valenzuela1183-1
8Musique ToujoursV. Espinoza11415-1
9Al ArzD. Flores11320-1
10Keep On PunchingR. Douglas11312-1

* Odds by DRF
* Television: Saturday, 7-8:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN