10/28/2003 1:00AM

Macward goes downhill - a good thing

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The veteran gelding Macward has long been regarded as the ultimate horse-for-course on Santa Anita's downhill turf layout. But the 7-year-old has fallen into a tailspin. After winning 4 of his first 8 starts down the unique course, age has caught up. Macward has lost nine in a row on the hillside.

The drought may end Thursday in the seventh-race feature. Ten California-breds race about 6 1/2 furlongs on turf in an optional $40,000 claimer that Macward once would have obliterated. Macward exhausted his allowance conditions years ago, and races Thursday for a $40,000 claiming tag. After a good third-place finish in a dirt route three weeks ago, Macward returns to his scene of former glory.

Macward's downhill record outshines his other past performances. He is 4 for 17 on the hill; 1 for 32 in all other starts combined. The speed figure earned by Macward in his last start compares favorably to his rivals on Thursday. He also is dropping out of open company and holds a class advantage, and his current condition is as sharp as can be expected for a horse who has won just one of his last 19 starts.

The likely favorite, Macward also is conditioned by the hottest trainer in Southern California, Doug O'Neill - who entered the week having won with 18 of his last 40 Oak Tree starters. (O'Neill has two entered Thursday, Macward and race 6 starter Metaphysics.) And yet, Macward is not a cinch.

The downhill turf course has favored speed the past two weeks, and Macward has lost much of his zip. The profile favors comebacker Beau Soleil. A 3-year-old facing winners for the first time, presser Beau Soleil earned successive Beyer Figures of 90 at Del Mar, including a three-length maiden win in his most recent start, Aug. 8. A son of General Meeting owned and trained by Jose DeLima, Beau Soleil has a fast recent workout that hints he is sitting on ready.

Slew's Prince is likely to set the pace under Patrick Valenzuela, and may be worth betting at odds of 4-1 or higher. He tired last time after setting Breeders' Cup Sprint-like fractions of 20.99 and 43.56 seconds. A softer pace Thursday may allow Slew's Prince to get brave on the lead. Other starters include the consistent claimer I'mawilly, Fly and Eagle, California Goal, and Memo to Russ.

* Race 2 on the card is a one-other-than allowance at a 1 1/8 miles on turf. The filly-mare race includes French import Vale of Wings, likely favorite Silver Yen, $10,000 claimer Slew to Siren, Sonia, and View From the Top.