05/11/2005 11:00PM

Imports could steal a LeRoy devoid of stars

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A handicap division that is currently in a shambles totters forward Saturday at Hollywood Park, where eight older horses are entered in the Grade 2, $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap.

Want a household name? Rock Hard Ten may not run until Del Mar; Southern Image has neither breezed nor raced in a year. In their absence, an ordinary cast entered the Mervyn LeRoy. None has won a graded stakes, but Borrego has finished in the money often enough to land the role of 119-pound starting highweight.

A 1 1/16-mile race, the Mervyn LeRoy is the first in the three-race handicap series at Hollywood that includes the Grade 2 Californian on June 18 and Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 9. By then, two recent arrivals may have emerged as stakes horses: Brazilian import Ace Blue and Florida shipper Native Hawk. Both have a chance to upset Saturday.

began his career in Brazil, where the stakes focus is on turf. "He tried grass and failed," said trainer Paulo Lobo. After finishing second in a Grade 3 race on dirt in his final start in South America, Ace Blue was sent to California to race on the main track. Lobo ran him seven furlongs in his first U.S. start.

"He needed to learn the pace here," Lobo said. "I knew he [wanted longer]; I put him at seven furlongs to give him speed."

Ace Blue pressed a fast pace and tired. It served its purpose, and Lobo shipped Ace Blue to Bay Meadows "to give him confidence." Another mission accomplished. Ace Blue has won his last two, including a second-level allowance at Santa Anita, and enters the Mervyn LeRoy on top of his game. He has won 6 of 13 in his career.

"I have high expectations," Lobo said. "He breezed fantastic."

But is he good enough? Ace Blue earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure last time and must improve to win the Mervyn LeRoy. If Ace Blue continues his upward pattern, he can improve enough to win.

Meanwhile, hot trainer Vladimir Cerin entered . Cerin has won with 9 of his first 18 starters at the meet, and Native Hawk makes his first start for Cerin. Cerin said he does not buy horses based on speed figures, and handicappers may have a hard time looking past Native Hawk's career-best 95.

"I think he's definitely a graded stakes horse," Cerin said. "His works have been unbelievable." Native Hawk has won 6 of 18. Other starters in the Mervyn LeRoy include American Liberty, Anziyan Royalty, Ender's Shadow, El Don, and Outta Here.