02/04/2005 1:00AM

Here come the Judge

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Benoit & Associates
Truly a Judge, with Martin Pedroza up, has won 3 of his last 4 starts. He'll be seeking his richest win in Saturday's San Antonio Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. - By last summer, Truly a Judge's losing streak had reached double digits and his owners were growing frustrated.

The idea of dropping the gelding into a high-priced claiming race was mentioned to trainer David Bernstein - and quickly shot down.

"We said, 'Maybe we could drop him and he'd be more competitive,'" said Gaylord Ailshie on Friday morning.

Ailshie owns Truly a Judge, along with Alan Aidekman and Tom Harris.

"David said, 'I don't think we should." Ailshie said. "I think he's a better horse than you give him credit for being.' David was right."

the last six months has been proving Bernstein correct. On Sunday, Truly a Judge tries for his fourth consecutive win, and third consecutive stakes win, in the Grade 2, $250,000 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita.

A victory would be the richest ever for Truly a Judge, 7, in a career highlighted by 12 wins in 42 starts and earnings of $685,131.

The revival has been a source of pride for the partners and especially Bernstein, who became convinced last summer that a change of strategy was what Truly a Judge needed to resume winning.

"What matters is that I didn't want to do it," Bernstein said of the claiming idea. "I kept telling them he hadn't lost a step, that maybe we need to get him back in the races early."

The change in running style began in an optional claimer at Del Mar in August. Racing without blinkers, which Truly a Judge had worn for most of his career, he began running near the front of the field - and winning. He ended a 12-race losing streak in that one-mile race on Aug. 25.

With the exception of a fourth-place finish after a slow start in the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap on Oct. 2, Truly a Judge has not lost since.

His winning streak began with a victory by 6 1/2 lengths in an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park on Nov. 18. The race was a prep for the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 11. Sent off at 6-1 in the Native Diver, Truly a Judge was left alone on the lead under jockey Martin Pedroza, and won by two lengths.

It was his first victory in a graded stakes and it signaled to Bernstein that the change in race strategy had been the right move.

"In the allowance race, Martin said he was only galloping. He never let him run," Bernstein said. "We decided to take a shot in the Native Diver and he won galloping again."

Truly a Judge's most recent win came in the Grade 3 San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita on Jan. 1. The race was originally scheduled for turf, but was shifted to the main track because of rain. Racing over a wet-fast track, Truly a Judge fought for the early lead with Forty Suertudo, took a clear lead in early stretch, and won by a length.

"Moving him to the front and letting him run his race, it's made all the difference," Ailshie said. "And Martin fits him so well."

Ailshie, Aidekman, and Harris have owned Truly a Judge since Oct. 8, 2001, when they claimed him for $20,000, winning a shake against three other owners. Truly a Judge won a one-mile race under Pedroza that day, the second time that the partners and Bernstein had tried to claim Truly a Judge. The previous month, they submitted a claim when Truly a Judge finished third in a $20,000 claimer at Del Mar, but did not win in a 12-way shake.

Pedroza did not ride Truly a Judge for more than three years - until the optional claimer at Hollywood Park in November. In between, Truly a Judge won six races, including the 2002 Claiming Crown Jewel at Philadelphia Park.

Bernstein said Truly a Judge got better after he solved a foot problem.

"We did find the little secret," he said. "We got very lucky and lucky that we won the shake for him. People are always asking about him. He's an underdog and a lot of people root for him."

Pedroza is confident in Truly a Judge and said he is not a one-dimensional front-runner.

"If he's on the lead, it's better, but if someone goes like a Quarter Horse, I feel I can do whatever I want," Pedroza said. "He has to break sharp because he's not a great gate horse. I like my chances on him."

The San Antonio will be a stern test. The field includes Congrats, the winner of the San Pasqual Handicap last month; Lundy's Liability, who won the Goodwood last October; and Total Impact, the winner of the 2004 Hollywood Gold Cup.

"It will be a tough race," Ailshie said. "There is no doubt about it. This is our Super Bowl party."