02/05/2004 1:00AM

Gold Ruckus has edge in wide-open field


ALBANY, Calif. - The last two runnings of the Tanforan Handicap attracted good horses such as Decarchy, Seinne, and Sligo Bay. There are no such stars in Saturday's $75,000 Tanforan, but the 1 1/16-mile turf race attracted a solid field of 11 horses that could make for a real dilemma for handicappers.

Five enter the race off a victory. Three others ran second in their last start while coming off wins.

There are speed horses and horse-for-course types. There are two graded winners and two others who have placed in graded races.

The one to beat could be Gold Ruckus, who will be the co-highweight with stablemate Cappuchino at 116 pounds.

Gold Ruckus has won four straight since returning to the races in October after suffering a fractured shoulder in February. Included among the victories was one at Saturday's distance over the turf here and, in his last start, a win in his stakes debut in the Lafayette Handicap on New Year's Day.

Cappuchino and Onebadshark - winner of two straight sprints since he suffered a cracked shin after setting the pace in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby last March - ensure a brisk pace. Expresso Bay, a half-brother of Medaglia d'Oro, and Savage, who went wire to wire in a paceless field to win an $80,000 optional claimer here in his last start, should be sitting just behind the two leaders.

Club Forty One, whose only loss over the course was a runner-up effort to Gold Ruckus, and Studio Time, second to Savage on Jan. 15 after a 9 1/2-month layoff, will likely be in the next flight with Bonaguil, Gold Ruckus, and possibly Wixoe Express. Aly Bubba and Sardaukar will be closing late.

The race could set up for Gold Ruckus, who tracked an honest pace that really heated up in the one-mile Lafayette. He made up ground as the third quarter was run in 23.40 seconds and came home in 23.65 seconds to win.

Expresso Bay, who won 6 of 10 starts last year and has been no worse than second in his past nine, should also be a factor. He was claimed by trainer Doug O'Neill for $80,000 from a win on Dec. 14 and was second as the odds-on favorite in the Paradise Mile Handicap at Turf Paradise for O'Neill.

"Eric [Saint-Martin] rode him over there and said he didn't handle the course," said O'Neill, who had lost a shake for the 7-year-old Expresso Bay on Sept. 5 at Del Mar. "I think he'll like this course a little better. That was a much harder course."