04/11/2002 11:00PM

Mountain Rage a tiger on turf

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Last weekend, trainer Bob Baffert briefly considered starting his turf star, Mountain Rage, in the Santa Anita Derby.

Eventually, common sense prevailed. Baffert kept Mountain Rage out of the Santa Anita Derby and has pointed the three-time stakes winner to Sunday's $75,000 La Puente Stakes.

"We think he's a different horse on the turf," Baffert said. Mountain Rage's record supports Baffert's theory. In eight starts, Mountain Rage is only a maiden winner on dirt, a victory in a sprint at Fairplex Park last September. On turf, Mountain Rage has won the Grade 3 Generous Stakes last November at Hollywood Park and two minor stakes at this meeting - the Hill Rise and Academy Road.

In his recent wins, Mountain Rage rallied from a stalking position to post convincing wins - by three lengths in the Hill Rise and two lengths in a division of the Academy Road.

The form of that division of the Academy Road Stakes on March 14 was flattered when National Park, who finished second but was disqualified and placed third for causing interference, returned to win the $100,000 Grand Prairie Turf Challenge at Lone Star Park last weekend.

Mountain Rage will have a different rider in the La Puente, which is restricted to nonwinners of a first-place purse of $50,000 in 2002 and is run over 1 1/8 miles. Victor Espinoza replaces David Flores, but Baffert said the change was made only for this race. Flores was scheduled to ride Tempera in the UAE Oaks in the Middle East on Saturday and Baffert was concerned he would not be able to return in time.

"I didn't want to take that chance," Baffert said.

The La Puente drew eight entrants and has a promising supporting cast. The only stakes winner other than Mountain Rage is Red Briar, the winner of a listed race in France last year. Other promising entrants include Johar and Dark Sorcerer, the first two finishers of an allowance race over one mile on turf on March 28; and Don't Holler, a troubled third in the division of the Academy Road Stakes that did not include Mountain Rage.

Johar is unbeaten in two starts on turf, including a maiden win over

1 1/8 miles on Feb. 24.

Mountain Rage has never tried 1 1/8 miles, but his finishing style suggests the distance should not be problem.

"He's been a lot of fun," Baffert said. "He's got a big kick. I'll keep him on turf."

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