01/01/2007 1:00AM

Hendrix, the stage is all yours

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PHOENIX - The guitarist Jimi Hendrix had no trouble finding the spotlight. But Hendrix the horse has found it somewhat elusive.

That may all change Sunday in Santa Anita's Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Hendrix has been knocking on the door and may be ready to break through.

Owned by J. Paul Reddam and trained by Craig Dollase, Hendrix has steadily climbed the conditions ladder, and in January at Santa Anita, rallied to beat third-level allowance horses by three-quarters of a length. Three starts later, Hendrix tried the Grade 2 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile at Golden Gate Fields on April 29. He finished seventh that day, but the one-two finishers happened to be Charmo and Aragorn, who were easily the two best milers on the West Coast in 2006. Hendrix bounced back in his next start, winning an allowance May 20 at Hollywood Park, and he signaled himself ready to try the deep end of the pool when he rallied to finish second to The Tin Man in Hollywood's Grade 2 American Handicap. The Tin Man went on to win the Arlington Million.

Hendrix lost to Aragorn in his next two starts, finishing sixth in the Grade 1 Eddie Read and and third in the Grade 2 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap. Dollase sent him to Keeneland for the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 7 as a potential springboard to the Breeders' Cup Mile, but Hendrix finished eighth.

Hendrix shipped back to Southern California, licking his wounds, his BC Mile bubble burst. But he continued to train and got a shot at the very tough Grade 1 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park on Nov. 24. Against some of the best middle-distance horses in the country, Hendrix, sent off at 25-1, sat far back early and appeared to be going nowhere, but he suddenly burst into the fray in midstretch and finished strongly, ending up second, one length behind Ashkal Way.

It was easily the best performance of his career, and with no one like The Tin Man, Aragorn, Charmo, or Ashkal Way lined up against him Sunday, he may finally get his chance on center stage.

Keep an eye on these names

The opening-day handle and attendance at Santa Anita was a rousing success, but the racing was terrific as well and will have ramifications down the line.

In the second race, a downhill turf sprint for first-level allowance horses, the talented but unlucky Storm Mate got a long overdue win. But the horse who caught my eye didn't figure in the outcome.

Valid Mecke had a lot going against him. He was making his first start since May and his first start for trainer Peter Miller. He was also making his first start on the turf, though his sire, Mecke, was a top-class runner on both surfaces and won the Grade 1 Arlington Million on the turf. Valid Mecke was also a 3-year-old facing elders.

After a sluggish start, it appeared Valid Mecke was merely going to get a glorified workout here. However, under David Cohen, he seemed to find his best stride after coming across the dirt, and angled to the inside and finished well. It was not enough to impact the finish, but it was enough to draw my eye away from Storm Mate. Next time.

The horse who caught my eye in the third race, a seven-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds, may end up having an even bigger impact. Tenfold was the heavy favorite off a super debut in which he finished second by a half-length at Hollywood Park on Dec. 9. In the third race, Tenfold broke sharply, set a comfortable pace, appeared in trouble when suddenly challenged by firster Tiago, but had plenty left to draw clear by two lengths.

Owned by the Bob and Beverly Lewis Trust and trained by Bob Baffert, Tenfold cost $725,000 as a yearling. He's by dual BC Classic winner Tiznow, who is proving to be a tremendous sire, having already produced champion filly Folklore and promising juveniles Tiz Wonderful and Liquidity. Tiznow has another potential big-time player in Tenfold, and Baffert knows how to prepare his 3-year-olds for the Derby.

Tiago made an eye-catching move himself, rallying from midpack and staying with Tenfold to midstretch before weakening; he may have expended too much energy with that midrace move.

But there's loads of potential here - Tiago is by route sire Pleasant Tap and is the little brother of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo. He also runs for the same owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and the same trainer, John Shirreffs.