03/06/2004 1:00AM

Imperialism rockets by Lion Heart in San Rafael

Imperialism (left) runs down Lion Heart to win Saturday's San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Imperialism is finding racing in California much easier than Florida.

Scoring his second consecutive stakes win, Imperialism ran down the heavily favored Lion Heart to win Saturday's $200,000 at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Victor Espinoza, Imperialism ($16.80) rallied from last to win by a neck, finishing a mile in 1:36.11.

Lion Heart, who suffered his first loss in his fourth career start, finished 4 1/2 lengths clear of Consecrate. Quinton's Gold Rush finished fourth, followed by Hosco, Castledale, Wimplestiltskin, Lucky Pulpit, Spellbinder, and Hasslefree.

Hosco set the early pace through an opening quarter-mile of 22.67 seconds, but was a head behind Lion Heart after running a half-mile in 45.71 seconds. Midway down the backstretch, Lucky Pulpit, Quinton's Gold Rush, and Hasslefree were close to the leaders.

On the final turn, Lion Heart maintained a narrow advantage, with Hasslefree threatening on the rail and Quinton's Gold Rush making a wide rally. At that point, Espinoza was making progress from the back of the field aboard Imperialism.

Lion Heart shook off his rivals in early stretch, led past the eighth pole, but could not hold off the challenge of Imperialism, who rallied wide through the stretch. Imperialism took the lead in the final 80 yards.

Owned by Steve Taub, Imperialism has won 5 of 14 starts and $287,605. Taub purchased him privately in January. A gray colt, Imperialism won his first start for Taub and trainer Kristin Mulhall in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes over seven furlongs Feb. 7.

In Florida last year, Imperialism placed in two stakes around two turns - the Foolish Pleasure Stakes and the Mecke Stakes.

Lion Heart was sent off at even-money. Last year, he won three races, including the Hollywood Prevue Stakes and Hollywood Futurity.