10/25/2002 12:00AM

Longer distance may revive Rob's Spirit

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PHOENIX - It's May 2001. There's a 4-year-old son of Theatrical in Bill Mott's barn who hinted at significant promise and ability. As a 3-year-old, he narrowly missed in the Grade 3 Hill Prince, won the Grade 3 Lexington for fun, and took the Grade 3 Saranac with a show of guts.

The horse is Rob's Spirit. In his comeback in a Belmont allowance race on May 18, 2001, Rob's Spirit finished third, then became a face on a milk carton.

Seventeen months later, Rob's Spirit's career has spiraled downward. A horse once considered comparable to other quality Mott horses such as Hap, King Cugat, and Del Mar Show, Rob's Spirit hasn't come close to fulfilling expectations.

Rob's Spirit returned for Mott in March and was a decent third in an optional claimer, but had two poor efforts at Belmont. Rob's Spirit then switched trainers, moving to the barn of Laura de Seroux, who is very much in vogue these days because of her success with Azeri, Astra, and Dublino.

And while Rob's Spirit may never go on to achieve the heights first considered within his grasp, he merits a long look in Sunday's Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke at Santa Anita. That's because the long-striding Rob's Spirit now has a feel for the course and gets what he wants most: a lot of ground. The 1 1/2-mile turf race hasn't lured the strongest field, which is just fine as Rob's Spirit's attempts to get back on track.

Jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who rides Rob's Spirit, is optimistic about his chances, despite finishing last on the horse in the 1 1/16-mile Harry F. Brubaker Handicap at Del Mar in his last race on Aug. 23.

"He didn't have any problems in the race," Valdivia said. "But he had been off for two months, and I told Laura that he just needed more distance. Now we're going a mile and a half.

"He had come in from New York before the Del Mar race. He had run at a mile and a quarter in New York, but only a mile and a sixteenth at Del Mar, which was too short for him. He should run a lot better going a mile and a half. Even though it looks like a small field, I don't think pace will matter, but the distance will."

Although Rob's Spirit finished last in the Brubaker, beaten 5 1/2 lengths, Valdivia was nevertheless encouraged. "He didn't get beat that far and I liked the way he galloped out," he said.

Even if the company isn't the strongest they're still putting up $150,000, so there will be some other decent runners. Rob's Spirit must do better to be a major player here, particularly with Nazirali in the lineup. A Grade 2 winner from Julio Canani's barn, Nazirali certainly needed his last race after having much of the year off. Nazirali and Dance Dreamer, who comes off a series of strong races against some of the best in the division at Hollywood and Del Mar, loom the horses to beat.

This will be Nazirali's second start since being sidelined with a splint injury following his Feb. 16 win in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap.

"He had a splint that he aggravated after his race, so we stopped on him," Canani said. "It was nothing major."

Nazirali finished only 3 1/2 lengths behind The Tin Man in his comeback in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap on Oct. 6.

"He finished fourth and he was closing in the Hirsch," said Canani, noting Nazirali worked six furlongs Tuesday under jockey David Flores in 1:13.20. "It was just what I wanted."

Sligo Bay rounding back into best form

Sligo Bay, winner of an allowance race at 1 1/4 miles on the turf last Friday, is being pointed to the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup at 1 1/2 miles on Nov. 23, according to trainer Beau Greely. The 4-year-old Sligo Bay won by three lengths coming off a four-month layoff. Before the vacation, Sligo Bay finished 10th in the Woodford Reserve and fifth in an allowance at Hollywood Park.

"You could tell he just wasn't his same old self," Greely said. "So we freshened up a bit and did some different stuff with him there on the farm to give him a change of scenery. We ran him here hoping a mile and a quarter wasn't too short for him first time back, because we were prepping him for the Hollywood Turf Cup. We were hoping he would run well and earn a spot into that race."

That's encouraging. Trouble is, you can bet there will be a refugee or two from the Breeders' Cup Turf also eyeing that race, as well as some as-yet-unknown European imports. But at least Greely's horse is back on track. The presence of some heavy hitters and Sligo Bay's previous troubles at least ensure a big price when he gets in the gate Nov. 23.