09/04/2004 12:00AM

How good is Gorylla?

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Short fields, low handle, and a mid-summer purse decrease have marked the 54-day Ellis Park meet, which concludes Monday. But the meet is set to end on a positive note with the $75,000 Tri-State Handicap attracting 11 turf runners, including Gorylla, winner of Argentina's Group 1 Carlos Pelegrini last year.

Gorylla, a 7-year-old New Colony horse that trainer Ken McPeek calls the South American version of John Henry, is set to make his U. S. debut. Slow to begin his career, he did not win a group stakes until 2002, when he won a Group 1 in Brazil at age 5. Then last year he won two group races from seven starts, including the Pelegrini, the top turf race in South America.

Gorylla faces obstacles on Monday. He has not raced since March, when he finished 13th in the Dubai Sheema Classic. He is also running 1 1/16 miles in the Tri-State, a distance shorter than his best. He has not competed in a race shorter than 1 1/2 miles since July of 2001 - a stretch of 21 races.

McPeek remains confident. "Class overcomes everything," he said.

His praise of Gorylla is matched by his actions. McPeek nominated him to the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga earlier this summer, but passed the race, feeling he was not yet ready. He also has him nominated to the Nov. 2 Melbourne Cup, Australia's famous two-mile handicap.

McPeek is seeking to repeat a successful formula in the Tri-State. Hard Buck, a Brazilian import who won the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup for McPeek earlier this year, got started in America last year in this race. He won it - albeit against only two opponents - and later won the Kentucky Cup Mile and River City Handicap in 2003. McPeek said he wants Gorylla to follow a similar schedule.

Willie Martinez gets the riding assignment aboard Gorylla, the 119-pound highweight, owned by Colorado Stud.

G P Fleet, ridden by leading rider Rafael Bejarano, is a major threat from his inside post. A stakes winner over the Ellis Park turf course last year, he comes off a trio of runner-up finishes for trainer Steve Flint. He matched the highest Beyer Speed Figure of his career July 24, when he earned a 99 Beyer for a runner-up finish behind Gretchen's Star in an overnight handicap.

Gin and Sin, also entered in the $75,000 Labor Day Handicap at Mountaineer Park, has won two stakes this year.