05/15/2003 11:00PM

Local Pittsburgh Star right marathon man

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PHOENIX - There are a number of races this weekend with heavier national implications, but the most interesting one may be at Turf Paradise, where the customary meet-ending $50,000 Hasta La Vista Handicap will be run Sunday.

It's not so much the horses that make this race but the circumstances. The race is run at 1 7/8 miles on the turf. That's right - 15 furlongs. Batten down the hatches, tighten up your laces good - you're in for the long haul.

The very nature of the race and its location means you're not going to get a nationally prominent animal. That's okay because you can win just as much money in the Hasta La Vista as you can in the Derby. And as usual, the race drew a full field of 12.

Adding to the possibility of a nice score is the presence of a vulnerable heavy favorite. At first glance, Southern California shipper All the Boys would appear the one to beat. Trained by Paul Aguirre, he comes off some super races on the Santa Anita turf, topped off by a second-place finish in the Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano April 20. That race not only gives him distance experience, but seemingly a significant class edge.

But prior to that race, All the Boys was beating $62,500 and $50,000 claimers and he had raced solely in claimers dating back to the summer of 2000. In other words, despite his San Juan success can we really call him a Grade 1 horse just yet?

While Southern California shippers have had considerable success at Turf Paradise, the course here is completely different than those in Southern California. Some runners handle it, some don't.

All the Boys, at even money or so, doesn't have to win this race, and his presence helps considerably if your eye falls on another, like top local turfer Pittsburgh Star.

Since being claimed for $6,250 last November by Scott Russo, Pittsburgh Star has been on a tear, winning 4 of 5 while steadily moving up the class ladder. The big test came April 23. Russo ran Pittsburgh Star in the Wildcat Handicap at 11 furlongs on turf. Among his opponents was Free Corona, the top turfer and horse of the meet at Turf Paradise this season.

But under regular rider Alberto Higuera, Pittsburgh Star, despite earlier traffic trouble, made a big move on the far turn to take a clear lead, and gave Free Corona all he could handle, dropping a three-quarter-length decision. Pittsburgh Star ended up over four lengths clear of third. That race showed he could run with the best locals around, and do it going long.

Sunday, All the Boys will receive all the attention and seemingly brings all the positives. But the way Pittsburgh Star has developed, and since he is 3 for 4 on the Turf Paradise turf course, he is the play at about 3-1.

Next time, do it right

I can tell you right now I'm going to be awfully tempted to vote for Jose Santos for the Eclipse Award, no matter what he does the rest of the year. That's because in what should have been his great moment he came under suspicion for no good reason and yet handled it with grace and dignity, refusing to lash out even after he was exonerated.

Some people have said that racing was a victim, too, because of the widely held public notion things in the sport aren't always on the up and up. That may be true, but in some respects racing has only itself to blame.

Incidents such as last fall's infamous Breeders' Cup "Fix Six" help promote the perception that in racing the fix is in. Top officials at tracks, tote companies, and maybe most importantly in the stewards' room have to understand the importance keeping the game clean as well as the public's perception of their efforts. They can do a great job 99 times, but if time No. 100 is handled clumsily the public forgets about those other 99 times.

In the recent Kentucky Derby probe, Churchill stewards should have finished their investigation before making any announcement as to the validity of the charges.

Had the Churchill stewards done it that way, they simply could have said, "We did our job, looked into it, and there was nothing there." Instead, Santos was chucked out in front of the hungry lions, and he never should have been put there in the first place.