01/11/2005 1:00AM

Kirkendahl - no work, no problem

Benoit & Associates
Congrats, easy winner of the sloppy San Pasqual, will be pointed to the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 6.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Kirkendahl is the early favorite for the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes on Saturday, the meet's first key two-turn stakes for 3-year-olds.

Kirkendahl, 2 for 2 sprinting, enters the race without benefit of a recent workout. His last work was Dec. 26.

"We'll just gallop him up to the race. If he's not super sharp it might work to his advantage," said Ted West, who trains Kirkendahl with his son, Ted H. West.

A son of Menifee, Kirkendahl is owned by country music star Toby Keith. He won his debut with a 78 Beyer Speed Figure, then improved second time out to win clear with a 99 Beyer. Kirkendahl will be ridden Saturday by Kent Desormeaux.

With the gelding Texcess apparently headed to the Golden Gate Derby on Saturday, the San Rafael field could be good-sized. Expected starters include allowance winners Spanish Chestnut and Chips Are Down; the stakes winner Dover Dere and stakes-placed Iced Out, both trained by Doug O'Neill; and maiden sprint winner Going Wild.

Field sizes decent despite weather

Faced with more than 17 inches of rain, 10 consecutive "off" tracks, and no turf racing since Dec. 27, Santa Anita has pieced together relatively decent cards that averaged 7.6 starters per race the first two weeks of the meet. Considering that an entire population of turf horses has been idle, average field size - mostly dirt horses - is commendable.

"There were these core of horses that had not run in a while, and they're pumped and ready to run," said racing secretary Rick Hammerle. "I think it's a direct reflection of the break we had."

Hollywood Park ended its fall meet Dec. 20, which allowed five dark days until the Dec. 26 opening of Santa Anita.

Bettors are supporting Santa Anita, even during inclement weather. Last Friday, Santa Anita out-handled Gulfstream Park $6.6 million to $6.5 million, despite a wet track, eight races, and 7.5 starters per race (Gulfstream was "fast," with nine races averaging 9.1 starters). And on Saturday, Santa Anita handled $9.3 million on a nine-race "wet" card that averaged 6.1 starters; Gulfstream handled $10.5 million with nine races averaging 10.7 starters.

Congrats points to San Antonio

The runaway win last Saturday by Congrats in the Grade 2 sets up the first West Coast showdown in the 2005 handicap division. Congrats will make his next start Feb. 6 in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap, against Truly a Judge, winner of the Grade 2 Native Diver Handicap and Grade 3 San Gabriel Handicap.

Trainer Richard Mandella said the 5 1/2-length win by Congrats was not entirely unexpected.

"We thought he would do that the first time - we gave him a little more enthusiasm going into the race," Mandella said.

While Congrats aims for the San Antonio, Mandella will train Rock Hard Ten up to the Strub on Feb. 5. The trainer's handicap arsenal will be complete if Action This Day and Minister Eric run well Saturday in the Grade 2 San Fernando.

Minister Eric will remove the blinkers he wore finishing seventh in the Malibu.

"It put too much speed in him," Mandella said. "It worked great in the morning, but in the afternoon it was about 10 notches too tight."

Surprisingly, Mandella expects 2003 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Action This Day to run a big race Saturday. He looked super coming back from a routine gallop Tuesday morning, after which Mandella said, "I really think he is going to run this weekend."

Action This Day finished ninth in his comeback in a turf race.

Douglas to ride A.P. Adventure

A.P. Adventure will have a new rider Sunday in the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes. Mike Smith rode A.P. Adventure to a third-place finish in her Dec. 12 comeback. Trainer Wally Dollase confirmed Tuesday that she would be ridden Sunday by Rene Douglas. Dollase declined to say why the switch was made.

A small field is taking shape for the El Encino. In addition to A.P. Adventure, other expected starters are Girl Warrior, Penny's Fortune, Susan's Angel, and Amorama.

O'Neill scopes out competition

Trainer Doug O'Neill starts more horses than any trainer in Southern California, which is one reason he ranks at or near the top of the standings meet after meet. But there is more to it than volume - O'Neill also runs them where they can win.

"Is Rock Hard Ten running?" he asked about the San Fernando.

Told that Rock Hard Ten, winner of the Malibu Stakes, was skipping the San Fernando, O'Neill replied, "Then I guess we'll have three."

Harvard Avenue, Perfect Moon, and Skipaslew will run for O'Neill. Harvard Avenue might have won the Malibu except for severe trouble in the stretch; Perfect Moon might be loose on the lead in the San Fernando.

"How about Sweet Catomine?" O'Neill inquired. Told she was expected to run Sunday in the Santa Ysabel, O'Neill said that Hollywood Starlet runner-up Sharp Lisa would duck Sweet Catomine and run Monday in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs.

Finally, the San Rafael.

"We're trying to stay away from Texcess," O'Neill said.

No problem. Texcess is heading to Golden Gate Fields, so O'Neill can run Dover Dere and Iced Out on Saturday in the San Rafael.

O'Neill, who entered the week with a 12-8 lead over Bob Baffert, said Diligent Prospect would stretch out to two turns in early February, in a race to be determined. The front-running Diligent Prospect won a comeback sprint Dec. 30, and O'Neill is considering races at Turf Paradise and Oaklawn Park.

Lava Man, runner-up in the Malibu, is headed to Florida for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic.

On London Time takes a shot

The filly On London Time is nominated to the Santa Ynez, but she will go for deeper waters instead, facing Sweet Catomine in the Santa Ysabel.

"If there were three of four Grade 1 or Grade 2 fillies in there, I would wait for a one-other-than," trainer Caesar Dominguez said. "But take out Sweet Catomine, and that's what the Santa Ysabel is - a one-other-than."