01/14/2003 1:00AM

Lake William a class act

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Lake William was a 6-year-old with only 17 career starts when he showed up Dec. 26 in a $62,500 claiming race, his first start in eight months. Trainer Vladimir Cerin said what everyone was thinking: "Horses that have had problems throughout their career continue to have problems."

The potential upside, however, was as obvious as Lake William's flaws. "He was past-class, he looked like he was working okay, and on his best days, he's pretty darn good," Cerin said.

Cerin and owners David Wilson and Rosendo Parra went for the gamble, claiming Lake William from trainer Richard Mandella. Their faith was validated when Lake William won. Thursday at Santa Anita, Lake William returns for his new owners in race 2, a downhill allowance.

Lake William faces a good field - graded stakes-placed Kachamandi, Group 1-placed import Cayoke, Australian import Grandiser, and the entry of Mandella-trained comebacker Morocco and likely pacesetter Ecstatic. Lake William's back credentials are appropriate. "On his best day, he'd be one of the favorites," Cerin said. "If he needed the [last] race, he'll probably be fitter this time."

He will have to be. It has been nearly two years since Lake William, now 7, won a Grade 3 race and one year since he earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure. Yet if the race unfolds on the course as it does on paper, Lake William and jockey Julie Krone will be first over on Ecstatic. A shortage of genuine speed compromises the closers.

Race 5, for a different class, presents a similar pace scenario. In the two-other-than/optional claimer for fillies and mares, Mike Machowsky-trained comebacker Vital Asset should shake clear from the rail. A winner in two of his three races, Vital Asset will have his chances partly dependent on Kona Queen, who will be hot on Vital Asset's heels.

Kona Queen, 6 of 10, has won 3 of 4 since being claimed in fall 2001 by trainer Pete Eurton. Recent workouts have been brilliant, according to Eurton. He said that jockey Corey Nakatani "worked her the other day and said, 'Run her anywhere.' " Pat Valenzuela will be Thursday's rider for Kona Queen, whose half-mile workout Sunday went unrecorded. If Vital Asset fades, Kona Queen would inherit the lead. Other entrants include Miss Jeanne Cat, comebacker Adorable One, and Mon Ange. Sweetcakesanshakes makes her first start since March 2000.

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