01/19/2005 12:00AM

'Mojave' eligible to improve


ARCADIA, Calif. - As comebacks go, the fifth-place finish by McCann's Mojave in the Grade 3 El Conejo Handicap on Jan. 2 was not what trainer Leonard Dorfman and owners Nikki Hunt and Mike Willman had envisioned.

The race marked McCann's Mojave's first start in eight months, and was quickly dismissed by all involved. Blame the wet-fast track, jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. said.

This Sunday, McCann's Mojave returns in the $150,000 Palos Verdes Handicap over six furlongs at Santa Anita, and the weather should not be a factor.

McCann's Mojave will be the starting highweight at 117 pounds. He was assigned one pound fewer than Our New Recruit, who will pass the race, according to trainer John Sadler.

McCann's Mojave will be seeking his first victory since the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap over 6 1/2 furlongs here last March, the most prestigious win of his eight-race career.

Following that race, McCann's Mojave finished second to Eclipse Award hopeful Speightstown in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap over seven furlongs on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

It turned out to be McCann's Mojave's last start of the year. He was taken out of training last spring with a hock injury, Dorfman said.

"It was something that you need to give a lot of time," Dorfman said. "That's my experience, anyway."

Dorfman, 92, trains a small stable. Last year, McCann's Mojave's two wins were the only victories for the barn from 11 starters.

The loss in the El Conejo Handicap did not overly concern Dorfman after he talked with Valdivia.

"The jock said he didn't handle the track," Dorfman said. "Other than that, the horse didn't have any excuse. He didn't seem to show any fatigue."

Since the El Conejo, Dorfman said that McCann's Mojave has trained well despite recent wet weather.

"We got as much done as we needed to," Dorfman said.

Valdivia, however, has been replaced by David Flores. Valdivia has opted to ride Taste of Paradise, who won the Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park last month. Flores will ride McCann's Mojave for the first time.

Wednesday, McCann's Mojave worked five furlongs in 1:00. Dorfman timed him in 59.20 seconds.

"I look for him to run real good," Dorfman said.

Pico Central targets San Carlos

The Palos Verdes will not include the circuit's top sprinter, Pico Central, who is in training at Hollywood Park.

Wednesday, Pico Central worked a half-mile in 50.80 seconds, his second workout since returning to serious training.

"It was a very easy half," trainer Paulo Lobo said.

Lobo said that Pico Central will be pointed for the $150,000 San Carlos Handicap over seven furlongs on Feb. 26.

Pico Central is a finalist for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding sprinter. The Eclipse winners will be announced at a ceremony in Beverly Hills on Monday night.

Gorylla could be short horse

Lobo isn't expecting much from the longshot Gorylla in Saturday's $150,000 San Marcos Stakes.

Lobo is worried that Gorylla has missed too much time because of recent rain to be effective in the Grade 2 San Marcos, run over 1 1/4 miles on turf.

"He's not fit enough for this race," Lobo said. "I lost so many days at the track because of the rain. I know everyone lost time but my horse is coming off a layoff. We need to start him."

Lobo is hoping the race will serve as a prep to the $150,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap over 1 1/2 miles on turf on Feb. 19, a distance he said better suits Gorylla.

Bred in Brazil, Gorylla has raced on three continents. Owned by Aluzio Ribeiro, Gorylla was a multiple group stakes winner in Brazil before joining trainer Kenneth McPeek last year. With McPeek, Gorylla finished last of 13 in the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic in the Middle East in March and was unplaced in three stakes in Kentucky in September and October.

The other probable starters include Epicentre, Habaneros, License to Run, Puerto Banus, Puppeteer, and T.H. Approval.

Habaneros won the Grade 3 Carleton Burke Handicap here in October, but was eighth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup last month.

The San Marcos is an important start for Habaneros, according to trainer Ray Bell. A win or a placing will keep Habaneros in stakes, while a loss could result in a drop in class. "I'm not sure he's a graded stakes horse," Bell said. "But I don't see anyone on the nominations that makes me shudder in fear."

Bell will be the first to admit he is happy that the 6-year-old Habaneros is even in the barn. After being turned out to a local farm in the summer of 2003 with a hind-end problem, Habaneros contracted a severe case of colic and underwent emergency surgery. He was laid off for more than a year.

"There was so much that needed to heal," Bell said.

Since returning to racing last summer, Habaneros has won 3 of 5 starts, with the wins coming in a $25,000 claimer, an allowance race, and the Grade 3 Burke.

Habaneros was entered for the San Gabriel and San Pasqual handicaps earlier this month but was scratched because of off tracks.

"He's been ready to run for a couple of weeks," Bell said.

Senor Fango retired following injury

Senor Fango, the winner of the Graduation Stakes for California-breds at Del Mar last July, has been retired after suffering a recent sesamoid injury, trainer and co-owner Jerry Dutton said.

Senor Fango, 3, finished his career with 2 wins in 9 starts and earnings of $122,742.

He was expected to start in Monday's $100,000 San Miguel Stakes when the injury occurred last weekend, Dutton said.

A gelding, Senor Fango could eventually become a riding horse, Dutton said.

"Someone will need to turn him out for a year," he said.

Senor Fango needed five races to win his maiden last year, eventually doing so in a $62,500 claimer at Hollywood Park. The win in the Graduation Stakes was the first of four consecutive stakes appearances. He later finished third in the Sunny Slope Stakes at Santa Anita last October.