05/12/2003 11:00PM

Lunarco wearing a bull's-eye

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Go ahead and disparage the 3-year-old gelding Lunarco. He is an easy target, after all.

Lunarco is not fast - his highest Beyer Speed Figure is 84. But trainer Ted H. West points out that Lunarco "has taken steps forward every race."

He must improve further to continue his ascent, because in eight starts Lunarco has yet to face a good horse. Or has he? Four horses Lunarco beat last time came back to win.

There is more to consider. Lunarco's running style - fast early, slow late - is usually not conducive to grass, the surface over which he runs Thursday. And yet, the Hollywood turf course this meet has favored front-runners at the mile distance. Lunarco should be well positioned to exploit the profile.

So go ahead and wager against Lunarco in the feature race Thursday. After all, there are nine others to choose from, and two also-eligibles. The race is a Cal-bred one-other-than, and despite conspicuous flaws, Lunarco could be the most likely winner. His rivals include Purple Cop, stretching out following a good third in a fast sprint; Roberto's Show, second last time out with a perfect trip; and sharp also-eligibles Kedington and First Insight.

Lunarco was purchased for $13,000 as a 2-year-old, based on inside information. "We trained the mare; she never made it to the races, but she was a runner," West said.

Lunarco also was sired by Interco, whom Ted West Sr. trained to a series of 1984 stakes wins, including the Santa Anita Handicap. But Lunarco was not an overnight success.

His first three races included one bad start, one blown first turn, and outfinishing a total of four horses. Then, finally, Lunarco began to turn. "Most Intercos are late bloomers," West said.

Lunarco won his fifth start, followed with two seconds against winners, then added blinkers and won for the second time in a maiden-40 starter allowance.

Initially, it appeared Lunarco had won in a weak field. But one by one, the horses Lunarco beat returned to win. Seventh-place Mr. Roadway won a claiming race April 23; fourth-place Sabalucious won a maiden-40 starter April 27; third-place Atouratoura won a maiden-40 starter May 1; and fifth-place Banker Boy won a claiming race May 8.

Goncalino Almeida rides Lunarco, who may benefit from the course profile. Nine of the 10 mile turf races have been won by a horse within two lengths of the lead at the quarter pole. Sure, Lunarco is an easy target. But the target moves, and could be long gone.