01/19/2002 1:00AM

Irish Prize tries extra ground


ARCADIA, Calif. - Already proven as a top turf miler, Irish Prize will attempt something new in the $150,000 San Marcos Stakes on Monday's holiday card at Santa Anita. The nine-race Martin Luther King Jr. Day program also includes the $150,000 Santa Ynez Stakes, which will be run as the fifth race.

For the first time in his 24-race career, Irish Prize starts at 1 1/4 miles, a distance jockey Gary Stevens feels is within his range. Stevens's optimism soared after Irish Prize won the San Gabriel Handicap over 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita on Dec. 30, closing from 10th in the final quarter-mile to win by a head over Sligo Bay.

"I left him with a lot to do the other day," Stevens said. "To me, his two best races have been at a mile and an eighth."

Trained by Neil Drysdale, Irish Prize may go favored in the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes, which is carded as the eighth race and has drawn seven others, including two leading contenders trained by Bobby Frankel - Lord Flasheart and Blue Steller.

Last year, Irish Prize won 5 of 9 starts, all in stakes. He won the Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile at Hollywood Park in June, but was fourth in both the Atto Mile at Woodbine and the Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park.

Since the San Gabriel Handicap, Stevens has been impressed with Irish Prize's workouts and says the 6-year-old gelding has thrived during a long campaign.

"He's very fresh and he's full of it," Stevens said. "The more he runs, the better he gets."

Either of the Frankel entrants is capable of winning. Another leading contender is Cagney, who was 12th in the Japan Cup. Continental Red, Kerrygold, Loving, and Takarian will be longshots.

Lord Flasheart won an allowance race over a mile on turf Dec. 30, his first start since finishing second in the 2000 French Derby. He closed 10 lengths in the last half-mile to win by a length. Troubled by injury earlier in his career, Lord Flasheart won the Group 2 Prix Hocquart over 1 3/8 miles on turf in France in 2000.

Blue Steller was third in the Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds on Dec. 26, failing as the favorite in the one-mile turf race. He won the Bay Meadows Derby last November over 1 1/8 miles on turf.

Cagney has trained well since he returned from Japan in late November. During the Oak Tree meeting on this course, he finished third in the Grade 1 Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship on Sept. 30, and then returned to win the Carleton Burke Handicap over 1 1/2 miles Oct. 28.

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