05/03/2007 12:00AM

For Molengao, stepping-stone to Gold Cup

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Only three-quarters of a length separates Molengao from a position on the nation's list of leading older males.

That was the margin by which Molengao lost the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap to Lava Man back in March. The rematch is likely to occur in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on June 30. But first, Molengao will try to win his second stakes of the year in Saturday's $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park.

The Grade 2 race at 1 1/16 miles is a prep to the Gold Cup and one that has been on the mind of trainer Paulo Lobo since March.

"He's coming back from a little layoff and is fresh," Lobo said. "He's happy. His last two works were breezing."

Molengao, 6, has been in the first three in his last four starts, all graded stakes, including a win in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita in February.

Molengao has started once on Hollywood Park's synthetic Cushion Track, finishing third in the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap here last December. At the time, he was returning from a layoff of nearly five months caused by "puffy ankles," Lobo said.

"I think his improvement has been because of the Cushion Track," Lobo said. "He is doing much better than on the track they had before."

The win in the San Antonio made Molengao a contender for the Big Cap, a race that unfolded against him.

Owned by TNT Stud, Molengao is best as a closer, but the Big Cap was run with a slow pace. Molengao still rallied from seventh to get close to Lava Man at the finish.

"I thought he ran huge that day," Lobo said. "The pace scenario was hard for him. It was too slow and still he made up ground."

Lobo is so focused on the Gold Cup that he may pass the Californian on June 2 with Molengao. "If he runs well on Saturday, my goal is the Gold Cup," he said.

Molengao's main rival in the LeRoy is Buzzards Bay, the winner of the 2005 Santa Anita Derby and 2006 Oaklawn Handicap and the fifth-place finisher in the 2005 Kentucky Derby.

The 120-pound topweight in the LeRoy, Buzzards Bay is making his first start since finishing fourth in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs last June, a layoff caused by minor injuries. Buzzards Bay has been effective on the lead. To prepare for Saturday's comeback, he had two seven-furlong and two one-mile workouts in the last month.

There are eight entrants in the LeRoy, including 2006 Lone Star Derby winner Wanna Runner and Porto Santo, who is making his first start on a synthetic surface.

Wanna Runner has not started since finishing sixth in the West Virginia Derby last August. Trained by Bob Baffert, Wanna Runner runs near the front and has worked quickly in recent weeks.

Porto Santo has run exclusively on turf in his first 13 starts, winning stakes in France and a minor race here last November. He finished sixth in the Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap on turf at Santa Anita on April 7.

Talamo gets three-day suspension

Apprentice jockey Joe Talamo has been suspended for three days for causing interference in the first race on Tuesday. Talamo was cited for altering course in the stretch aboard John the Maitre D, who was disqualified from fifth and placed sixth.

Talamo's suspension begins on Wednesday and continues through Friday. It will be the second consecutive week in which Talamo served a three-day suspension. He was cited for causing interference on the final day of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, April 22.

Through Wednesday, Talamo led the standings with nine winners, one more than Michael Baze and Victor Espinoza.