01/20/2005 12:00AM

License to Run looks like real deal

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Benoit & Associates
License to Run (left) is third in the Hollywood Turf Cup after making up nearly six lengths in the stretch.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The California turf marathon division, which has lacked depth in recent seasons, may be on the verge of a revival.

Saturday's $150,000 over 1 1/4 miles on turf at Santa Anita brings together a field of eight, including the exciting Brazilian import License to Run, who made his American debut with a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup last month.

The race was License to Run's first start since May, and it may have been the launch of a promising career in major turf stakes in this country.

Proof of that could come as quickly as the Grade 2 San Marcos, a race that lacks a standout.

Owned by TNT Stud, License to Run has already impressed trainer Bobby Frankel with his neck loss to Pellegrino in the Turf Cup over 1 1/2 miles.

"He could be a good horse," Frankel said. "I thought he ran well. We learned a lot from the last time."

A winner of 4 of 9 starts, License to Run won two group stakes in Brazil last year, at about 1 1/4 miles and about 1 1/2 miles on turf. In the Turf Cup, License to Run chased a slow pace to the early stretch before making up a deficit of nearly six lengths.

There should be pace in the San Marcos, particularly from Habaneros, 6, who pulled an upset in the Grade 3 Carleton Burke Handicap in October before finishing eighth in the Turf Cup.

Habaneros will be a longshot, but there will be support for Epicentre and Puppeteer.

Epicentre, trained by Frankel for Juddmonte Farms, won the Grade 3 Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland last April. The 6-year-old Epicentre has not started since finishing eighth in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap over 1 1/4 miles on turf at Belmont Park last June. He finished first in the 2003 Hollywood Turf Cup but was demoted to third for interference.

"I might need to get a race into him," Frankel said.

Puppeteer is a threat to the Frankel-trained runners.

Owned by Michael House and trained by Jeff Mullins, Puppeteer was a group stakes winner in France last year but is winless in two starts in this country. He finished a fast-closing fifth in the W.L. McKnight Handicap at Calder last month, a loss that left Mullins frustrated.

"He drew outside and he never got covered up," Mullins said. "He tried to run off on them. He's a good horse. He just needs a good trip."