04/04/2002 1:00AM

Irish Prize one of several threats


ARCADIA, Calif. - Irish Prize is attempting to win his third stakes of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting in Saturday's $150,000 Arcadia Handicap.

Sligo Bay is trying to end a three-race streak of runner-up finishes in major races.

They are two leading contenders in the Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap, which has drawn nothing but stakes winners among the nine entrants. The quality of the stakes wins ranges from the minor Pacifica Handicap at Bay Meadows, won last October by Night Patrol, to the Grade 2 Knickerbocker Handicap won by Sumitas at Belmont Park last October, to Irish Prize's win in the Grade 1 Shoemaker.

Run over 1 1/8 miles on turf, the Arcadia Handicap is a wide-open betting race. Irish Prize may be the 122-pound highweight and probable favorite, but it is easy to make a case for several others.

El Gran Papa, the winner of the Dallas Turf Cup at Lone Star Park last year, was a troubled fourth in the John Connally Breeders' Cup Turf Handicap at Sam Houston Race Park on Feb. 23. Homeland, a three-time stakes winner in France last year, makes his first start as a gelding following two losses over the winter.

Irish Prize drew the rail. The mount of Gary Stevens, the 6-year-old Irish Prize won the San Gabriel Handicap and San Marcos Stakes in the first month of this meeting before finishing a disappointing seventh in the Frank Kilroe Mile on March 2.

"There wasn't much pace in the race and he was a bit far back," trainer Neil Drysdale said.

The presence of Sumati, Kerrygold, and Sumitas should help closers such as Irish Prize and El Gran Papa.

They both must get by Sligo Bay, who is likely to be stalking the leaders. Sligo Bay finished second by a nose in the Oak Tree Derby last October, lost the Hollywood Derby by a length to Denon a month later and was beaten a head by Irish Prize in the San Gabriel Handicap over the same course and distance as the Arcadia.

"He's run well at Santa Anita and run well at a mile and an eighth," trainer Beau Greely said.

A 4-year-old, Sligo Bay drew post 8 and will be ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr.

The post should not be a problem since Sligo Bay will have plenty of time to save ground in the run to the first turn.

"He's doing better than he's ever done," Greely said.

To win the Arcadia Handicap against a strong field, Sligo Bay may need the best performance of his career.