01/02/2003 1:00AM

For Kudos, a second chance to reach the top

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The patience trainer Richard Mandella and owners Jerry and Ann Moss had exercised with Kudos was just beginning to pay dividends last spring. Then, suddenly, he was done for the year.

Kudos came out of his victory in the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap in April with a bone chip in a front ankle. After winning a couple of restricted stakes on turf, and finishing third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, he had earned his first Grade 1 victory in the Oaklawn Handicap, with the highest Beyer Speed Figure of his career, a 113. The future looked bright. He had a full year of competition against a suspect group of older horses unfolding before him.

That was then. And now.

The handicap division - or Classic Division, as they prefer at the Breeders' Cup home offices in Lexington, Ky. - is lacking star power for the second straight year. Since Tiznow, the two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner, was sent to stud at the end of 2001, the older horse division has had more flavors of the month than an ice-cream shop. Last year, horses such as Left Bank and Street Cry left the scene, either through injury or death, almost as soon as they arrived. Volponi, who won the Classic, is remembered more for bringing down the Breeders' Cup Pick Six riggers than anything else.

Kudos was another of those who last year exited soon after his biggest victory. But - unlike Left Bank and Street Cry - he has a chance to pick up right where he left off.

Kudos on Saturday makes his first start in nine months, in the $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap, the first prep race of the Santa Anita season for older horse seeking riches in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 1. Now 6, Kudos is lightly raced, having made just 19 starts. And, as far as Mandella is concerned, his best days are still ahead of him.

"He's not even 7. He's not of age in this barn," Mandella said with an impish grin. "Give him another year before he hits his peak."

Kudos could be around a long time. As long as he's sound, he'll race. Because he is a gelding, he has no future at stud.

"He's one of those reminders of why you geld a horse sometimes," Mandella said. "We gelded him because he wasn't trying. All he wanted to do was play. He just wanted to have fun. He didn't have a serious bone in his body."

Gelding Kudos was not punishment for misbehavior. Rather, it was an attempt to get him to focus on the task for which he was bred.

"We were all frustrated. We knew he should be winning races, but he wasn't," Mandella said. "He never had any meanness. He just wanted to play."

Kudos was gelded two years ago. He won his next four starts.

"It made him look hard at the game," Mandella said. "I guess he didn't want to see what the next step was. He didn't want us to call his bluff."

Kudos, a tall, leggy son of Kris S., has raced primarily on turf, winning four times in 14 starts on that surface, including Hollywood Park's Jim Murray Handicap in 2001. He moved to the dirt one year ago when Santa Anita's San Marino Handicap was moved from the turf to the dirt because of rain.

Kudos won that race, came back to run third in the Big Cap, then went to Oaklawn and won there by nearly five lengths with a wicked stretch run under Eddie Delahoussaye.

"Eddie had him so far back," Mandella said. "He looked like he was jumping up and down. Then he circled the field. He was awesome."

And he was hurt. Kudos needed surgery to remove the ankle chip, then was given plenty of time to recover, Mandella choosing to point for this meet. The Santa Anita Handicap is of particular importance, because it could be viewed as a dress rehearsal for another 1 1/4-mile race at Santa Anita later this year, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"We were all excited, and then we had a little bump in the road," Mandella said. "The chip was nothing serious. Just a little dent in the fender."

He's out of the shop, ready to hit the road.