04/18/2003 12:00AM

Marathon for most is a sprint for Nazirali


PHOENIX - One race, 14 furlongs. Sounds more like three races, doesn't it? Actually, the distance - about 1 3/4 miles on turf - is what makes Sunday's Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita so captivating, even when there isn't a proven top-class horse like Bienamado or Sandpit in the field.

The San Juan Capistrano is the longest stakes in the United States, and that means it's uncharted waters to almost every horse who runs in the race.

Not Nazirali.

Nazirali has won 3 of 7 U.S. starts, including the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap last year. Few realize how talented he is because he rarely gets to run at a suitable distance. The 1 3/4 miles of the San Juan Capistrano is perfect for him.

Nazirali won 1 of 3 starts, all in France, before coming to the U.S. in late 2001. That win came at 1 13/16 miles, a sixteenth longer than he will run Sunday.

He won his first U.S. start, a 1 1/4-mile first-level allowance at Hollywood Park, in November 2001. Although the distance was probably shorter than his best, Nazirali won because he was much better than his opponents. He ran second in an $80,000 optional claimer, again at 10 furlongs, then won the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Obispo last March. The 2002 San Juan Capistrano seemed like a logical spot for Nazirali, but he didn't run again until the Grade 1 Hirsch Memorial at Oak Tree last October.

He ran fourth in both the 1 1/4-mile Hirsch and 1 1/2-mile Carleton F. Burke at Santa Anita, and then finished ninth at 1 1/2 miles in November in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup.

It turned out that Nazirali had been suffering from a throat ulcer. "He couldn't breathe," said his trainer, Julio Canani.

When that problem healed, Canani brought Nazirali back in a 1 1/4-mile three-other-than allowance here April 2, and he won by a half-length. Despite the relatively quick turnaround, indications are for a big San Juan Capistrano run.

"You would never think much by looking at him," said jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who was aboard for Nazirali's April 2 win. "He's a very small horse, but very well-made and put together well. He ran huge last time. It was his first race off a long layoff and he came running. He beat two nice horses in Okawango and Murano, so I'm really looking forward to riding him Sunday. Hopefully, we can take the San Juan."

The horse to beat is Champion Lodge, the 117-pound highweight, who comes off a six-length romp in the March 15 San Luis Rey, the logical lead-up race to the San Juan Capistrano. Trained by Sandy Shulman, Champion Lodge has won two of his three starts since being imported last fall from England.

Champion Lodge's San Luis Rey win came on a yielding course, and the turf will probably be firm Sunday. He has won on firm turf, but may be at his best when there's give in the ground. Nazirali, on the other hand, has shown a liking for firm turf.