11/01/2001 12:00AM

Mile is another episode in the Native Desert show


ARCADIA, Calif. - The California Cup Mile would seem odd without Native Desert.

On Saturday, for the fourth consecutive year, Native Desert starts in the $175,000 California Cup Mile at Santa Anita. He is the likely favorite as the stronger half of an entry with Ringaskiddy, the winner of the Quicken Tree Stakes at Hollywood Park last spring.

Native Desert's form shows he is as sharp as he was when he finished third in the 1998 Mile, won the 1999 running, and finished a strong second in 2000. (He was also eighth in the 1997 Cal Cup Sprint).

Recent proof came in the California Turf Championship at Bay Meadows on Sept. 3 when he finished in a dead heat with Spinelessjellyfish, his principal competition in Saturday's Mile.

Since then, the 8-year-old Native Desert has had his training interrupted.

A start in the Pomona Invitational at Fairplex Park in late September was scrapped after a bruised foot surfaced, a problem that trainer Juan Garcia says was quickly solved. After Native Desert returned to training, Garcia briefly considered the Breeders' Cup Mile, but the idea never got beyond the talking stage.

"The horse is in good shape," Garcia said. Native Desert, who will be ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye, will carry top weight of 123 pounds in the Mile, which is run on turf. The weight is the highest ever handicap assignment for Native Desert, who has won 18 of 60 starts and $1,478,891. His earnings make him the richest starter on Saturday's 10-race California Cup program.

A stalker, who tends to be four to six lengths behind the pace, Native Desert is expected to track Wolfwithintegrity, who will be closely followed by Lily's Lad and Spinelessjellyfish. A moderate pace will not work against Native Desert, whose speed has carried him into contention in the past.

"He's as good as ever," Garcia said. "We need a little luck with his racing. He has his own style. There looks likes there is speed in the race."

Lily's Lad was considered for the California Cup Classic, before owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs opted for the Mile. A 4-year-old gelding, Lily's Lad won an allowance race at Hollywood Park in June and was third behind Road to Slew and Native Desert in the Crystal Water Handicap here last March, the springtime championship for California-bred turf milers at Santa Anita.

Spinelessjellyfish was sixth in the Crystal Water, but rebounded to win the $175,000 Khaled Handicap on California Gold Rush Day at Hollywood Park last April. His only other win this year was the dead heat with Native Desert at Bay Meadows, which was followed by a sixth in the Grade 2 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 7.

He has since had three workouts, impressing trainer Jenine Sahadi and jockey Chris McCarron.

"Chris said he worked terrific," Sahadi said. "I said, 'Did he do too much?' and Chris said, 'Do whatever you want.' "

Although he is approaching the race well, Sahadi realizes that Native Desert, the veteran, is the horse to beat from post 5, three positions inside of Spinelessjellyfish.

"Native Desert is a remarkable horse and he's got a better draw," Sahadi said. "I don't like where I'm at but what can I do? With all the runners, you need a clean trip."