01/17/2007 1:00AM

Monteleone in a zone


ARCADIA, Calif. - Few claiming trainers in Southern California are as hot as Frank Monteleone. He won with 4 of his first 8 starters at Santa Anita, he is 11 for 27 the past five months in California, and has won at more than a 26 percent clip since the start of 2006. What has changed?

"Nothing's changed," Monteleone said. "I have owners that let me run them where I want to run them. I have horses that are fitting right now, and we've made some claims that we've been able to move up."

Monteleone admits to "aggressive" placement of claiming horses, a trend that has continued at Santa Anita.

He dropped Lahuna off the claim and he won for $10,000 Sunday; Hemet won Saturday for $12,500, two starts after being claimed for $16,000; Gee Honey won a $10,000 claimer Jan. 4, first off the claim-and-drop; Out of Coal dropped one level and stretched out Dec. 31 to win a $25,000 claiming route.

Monteleone said longtime assistant and exercise rider Linda Mikus is key to the success of his 14-horse stable. "She's the only one that gets on my horses; she runs the barn," he said.

Monteleone entered the week tied for seventh in the standings.

As the for the next couple weeks, he said, "I'm out of bullets, I have to recycle."

Baffert high on Midnight Lute

Midnight Lute lost the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes by a nose Saturday, but established himself as the likely favorite for the Gradeo2 Strub Stakes on Feb. 3. Midnight Lute was four wide early in the San Fernando, made a premature four-wide move on the far turn, hit the front, then gawked around and got nailed by Awesome Gem. Trainer Bob Baffert said Victor Espinoza would ride Midnight Lute again in the 1 1/8-mile Strub.

The San Fernando, Baffert said, "was his first time going long, and now Victor knows he can sit on him to the quarter pole and then turn him loose.

"He is a serious horse," Baffert added.

Midnight Lute finished third with a troubled trip Dec. 26 in the seven-furlong Malibu. The Strub is also expected to attract Awesome Gem, Brother Derek, and Arson Squad.

Truly a Judge may go north

The veteran graded stakes winner Truly a Judge has lost a step at age 9. He also lost his chance to win an optional $100,000 claimer Sunday when he stepped back as the gates opened and was farther off the pace than he prefers. Truly a Judge finished a distant third, after which trainer David Bernstein contemplated the gelding's future.

"It may be time to run him in a stakes up north," Bernstein said. "He fits for $100,000 claiming, maybe a little less. He still acts like he wants to do it in the morning."

Truly a Judge has won 12 races and $763,142 from 50 starts, most of it since he was claimed for $32,000 on Oct. 8, 2001. A gelding, Truly a Judge is owned by Alan Aidekman, Gaylord Ailshie, and Tom Harris. His last win was Jan. 1, 2005, in the Grade 3 San Gabriel Handicap.

Avila finds secret to River Savage

A runaway stakes win Jan. 12 by River Savage has made her a leading contender for the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap on Feb. 10. Hard to believe she could have been claimed for $50,000 in October. But after River Savage finished last in three straight starts, trainer A.C. Avila figured no one would touch her. He also knew she had an excuse.

"We found out at Del Mar she had diabetes," Avila said. "I've only had one other horse in 15 years with diabetes. You have to change their whole feed program."

It worked for River Savage, who responded to the new feed program, won for a $50,000 tag Oct. 12, won again Oct. 25, but then scratched from the Grade 2 Bayakoa on Dec. 3 because of a skin disease.

River Savage returned Dec. 26 and finished third in a sprint stakes, then stretched back out Jan. 12 and won the $79,100 Paseana Handicap by 4 1/4 lengths. An import from Brazil, River Savage has won 5 of 13 starts. Her winning Beyer Speed Figure in the Paseana was 89.

Garcia gets his man

Jockey Matt Garcia has hired agent Richie Silverstein, who will continue to represent Martin Pedroza. Garcia had been representing himself.

"I've been trying to get Richie for 10 years," Garcia said. "Martin's second calls are better than what I was getting."

Garcia, 36, entered the week without a victory in Southern California since September, when he was 9 for 68 during the Los Angeles County Fair meet at Fairplex Park.

Saturday stakes

A small field is expected Saturday for the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap at six furlongs. Friendly Island, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, is the 118-pound co-highweight with Harvard Avenue, winner of the Grade 3 El Conejo Handicap. Palos Verdes nominees Zanzibar and Brooker entered an allowance race Friday, and Areyoutalkintome is expected to wait for the $300,0000 Sunshine Millions Sprint. That leaves To Sender (113), Limited Creole (111), and Indian Chant as the only other possibles.