01/12/2004 12:00AM

Money is up, and the stars come out


ALBANY, Calif. - Golden Gate Fields offers a race program Wednesday that looks more like a weekend card than a midweek one.

The feature is a $50,000 optional claiming sprint that includes four American stakes winners - one of them, Debonair Joe, a Grade 1 winner. And those four could simply be running for second money.

Also on the card, Smoke Till Dawn will make his first start since he set a track record for six furlongs, and Mazurka Danzer, a half-brother to Kentucky Derby runner-up Cavonnier, makes his debut in a split of a 3-year-old maiden race.

The purses alone point to the quality of Wednesday's card, with $172,000 being put up for the day. By contrast, Sunday's nine-race card had a purse total of $134,000.

Stakes winners Debonair Joe, Texas Chili, Sempai, and Radar Contact will compete in the feature. But one of the other four runners could end up the race favorite.

The one to beat could be Onebadshark, who won by three lengths in his Dec. 20 comeback and was being considered for the Sunshine Millions.

"We heard Peace Rules would be running and didn't want to throw him to the wolves, so we think we're taking a logical step here," trainer Brian Koriner said. "There doesn't seem to be any speed outside him so this race may set up nicely for him."

The most intriguing entrant is the Chilean-bred Zona de Impacto, making his U.S. debut for trainer Larry Ross. He won 6 of 7 starts last year in his native country, running second in the other start. Although all the victories came in stakes or handicap races, Zona de Impacto, a 5-year-old gelding by Stagecraft, still qualifies to run without a claiming price under the "never won $3,000 twice" condition.

"I don't know," Ross said when asked if Zona de Impacto could be as good as Ema Bovary, a Chilean import who has become a stakes winner for Ross in this country. "He has quite impressive form."

Zona de Impacto had only a maiden win from 11 starts in 2002 before blossoming last year.

"They gelded him," said Ross, trying to explain the turnaround.

If looks mean anything, Zona de Impacto could be tough to beat, and his works, while not eye-popping, have been "perfect, on schedule," according to Ross.

"Watching tapes of his races, he runs inside or outside," said Ross.

Ross said that Wednesday's race is "an acid test."

Private Aviator has won 2 of his past 3 starts and will be particularly tough if the track is wet.

Steves Remark won his debut impressively last April and will be making his first start since.