04/15/2004 11:00PM

Meteor Storm solid as a rock


ARCADIA, Calif. - Meteor Storm's tenuous grip on the turf division is at risk Sunday in the Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap. Nine older horses entered the 1 3/4-mile turf race, the traditional Santa Anita winter-spring meet closing-day feature.

Leadership has wavered across nearly every division since last December, and even if wins his second straight stakes Sunday, the long-distance turf division will remain unsettled. It has been that kind of meet - 84 days of racing in which much is unresolved.

Santa Anita Handicap winner Southern Image won three stakes yet remains in the shadow of Pleasantly Perfect. The filly Island Fashion won two stakes, finished second in the Big Cap, then blew up in the Apple Blossom and has fallen behind Azeri in the country's older filly and mare ranks. The 3-year-olds have mostly taken turns, and 2003 champion juveniles Halfbridled and Action This Day both fell short.

The San Juan Capistrano, downgraded this year to Grade 2, attracted a modest field. Meteor Storm, trained by Wally Dollase, is the only entrant with a recent win at the level. The field includes Gene de Campeao, third at 33-1 in the San Luis Rey; Rhythm Mad, winner of a three-other-than allowance last out; Gigli, a Group 1 winner in Brazil making his second start back; and Ringaskiddy, winner of the 2002 San Juan Capistrano.

Blue-collar front-runner All the Boys will set the pace; former claimer Special Matter lost a front shoe finishing unplaced in the San Luis Rey and should improve; Runaway Dancer and White Buck are the closers.

The race is Meteor Storm's to lose.

Meteor Storm has has never been better. A European import, Meteor Storm won one of his first three U.S. starts, then was sidelined from May to November 2003. Each start of his current four-race campaign has been better than the previous, including his fourth win from 12 starts in the San Luis Rey. Jose Valdivia rides at 116 pounds.

Gene de Campeao's form is improving. A three-time Group 1 winner in Brazil, he began his North American campaign in January.

"It took him about six months to acclimate," trainer A.C. Avila said. "It looks like he's fit now."

In successive Grade 2's, he was defeated five lengths, 3 1/4 lengths, and one length. Omar Berrio rides Gene de Campeao, and Avila said, "Our strategy will be to send."

The spring-summer race meet at Hollywood Park begins Wednesday.