02/03/2007 1:00AM

How long can 'Preachin' last?

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Preachinatthebar's speed makes him dangerous in Sunday's San Antonio.

ARCADIA, Calif. - For the gray front-runner Preachinatthebar, 1 1/8 miles is at least a half-furlong too far, and Grade 2 class is about one notch too high.

But when he starts as the 116-pound second highweight in the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap on Sunday at Santa Anita, Preachinatthebar has one key attribute that cannot be overstated. That is, early speed.

Nine older horses run nine furlongs in the San Antonio, the final local prep for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3. Like him or not, Preachinatthebar will influence the race because of his up-front running style. The question is, can Preachinatthebar stay nine furlongs?

Preachinatthebar has raced the San Antonio distance, or farther, eight times. He has only one win and one third. But at 1 1/16 miles or less, Preachinatthebar is 8 for 22. Owned and bred by Mike Pegram, and trained by Bob Baffert, Preachinatthebar has won 9 of 30 starts and $814,907. Jon Court rides him Sunday.

Last time out in the Grade 2 San Pasqual at 1 1/16 miles, Preachin-atthebar pressed a sizzling pace, made the lead a furlong out, and then was inhaled by two deep closers and finished third. The race was Preachinatthebar's first start in three months, and marked a return to top form.

But the additional half-furlong of the San Antonio does Preachin-atthebar no favors, and eight others will try to beat him, including 117-pound highweight Ball Four. The knock on Ball Four is surface. The upset winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic on the Polytrack at Keeneland in September, Ball Four's record on dirt is 1 for 6. He is 4 for 12 on turf or synthetic.

The San Antonio is the first start for Ball Four since Dec. 10, when he pressed the pace and finished fifth in the Grade 3 Native Diver. Trained by Patrick Biancone, Ball Four will be ridden by Julien Leparoux. Ball Four's pressing style helps ensure an honest pace.

The San Antonio could fall apart in favor of closer Southern Africa, who returns to dirt after a disappointing experiment on grass. There is no question about his ability at the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio distance. Southern Africa won the nine-furlong Hinds Invitational, and was a closing second one back in the Gradeo3 Native Diver Handicap at the same distance.

Also in the field are Backus, Porfido, El Roblar, Melengao, Fairbanks, and Billy Allen. First post Sunday is 11 a.m. Pacific. The ninth and final race will be run at about 3op.m., 15 minutes before Super Bowl kickoff.