04/29/2005 12:00AM

Habaneros a much-improved horse


PHOENIX- Just last summer you could have claimed Habaneros for $25,000 at Del Mar. It didn't happen, and owner and trainer Tom Bell couldn't be happier. Since that time, Habaneros has won twice, including the Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke at Santa Anita, and has rubbed elbows with some of the best turf distance horses on the West Coast. That r?sum? earned him high weight of 122 pounds for Sunday's $40,000 Wildcat Handicap here and makes him the horse to beat in the full field of 12 at 1 3/8 miles on the turf.

A 6-year-old gelding, Habaneros hinted at promise in 2003, when he won his maiden, but after a poor first run against winners in April 2003, he wasn't seen again for 15 months. Habaneros returned in the $25,000 claimer at Del Mar last July, won that race, and came right back to win an allowance race there. Both of those races were on the dirt, but he's likely even better on the turf. His Burke win came going 1 1/2 miles, so this trip certainly suits him, and he was hardly embarrassed when he finished fourth in the Grade 2 San Marcos at 1 1/4 miles on the turf at Santa Anita. The horse he chased that day, Whilly, came back to be second in the Group 1 Duty Free in Dubai.

Kerwin John will ride Habaneros.

Balustrade is the second highweight at 120 pounds. Trained by Leonard Powell, Balustrade did some good work on the East Coast in 2003 and 2004, and last out finished seventh in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 19, but that race was washed off the turf. Balustrade seems to prefer this surface and is a proven commodity at this type of distance. Joel Campbell rides.

Three horses weighted next at 116 pounds - Paladin Power, Vigilant Site, and Nazirali - can threaten. Paladin Power was dull in the Blaze O'Brien here April 12 but before that won a strong optional claimer here and was third in the Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup Handicap. Vigilant Site has a strong first half of this season, winning three straight claimers before finishing second in the Turf Paradise BC Handicap and third in the Coyote. He was since dull in the Phoenix Gold Cup and Blaze O'Brien, but a rebound to his best form can make him a player. Nazirali is a proven distance player, having performed well in Southern California in a number of top turf marathons there. He has two races under his belt after more than 13 months on the bench and may be ready to return to top form now.

A potential price play is Hammerin, who won the 1 5/8-mile Marathon on the dirt here March 1 by more than 11 lengths, then finished third in his turf debut here last time.