10/21/2004 12:00AM

Much in Puerto Banus's favor


ARCADIA, Calif. - Puerto Banus was thrown into a tough field earlier this month when he ended a six-month layoff with a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Handicap.

Bettors saw it coming, sending him off at 21-1 in a field that included Breeders' Cup Turf hopefuls Star Over the Bay and Sarafan.

There is no such competition for in Saturday's $100,000 Carleton Burke Handicap at Santa Anita. The Burke is run over 1 1/2 miles on turf, over a course and at a distance which Puerto Banus has proven to like this year.

Back in February, Puerto Banus, 5, won the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap at Santa Anita.

Trainer Kristin Mulhall shrugged off the loss in the Hirsch and has focused on the Burke. "He wasn't ready for that race," Mulhall said of the Hirsch. "I was very happy with the way he ran. It should set him up perfect."

A win on Saturday could lead to a start in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup on Dec. 4 for Puerto Banus.

The Grade 3 Burke is one of two stakes on a 10-race program that includes the $75,000 Sunny Slope Stakes for 2-year-old sprinters.

Puerto Banus carries 115 pounds in the Burke, one fewer than starting highweight Continuously, the winner of the 2003 Hollywood Turf Cup.

Trained by Bobby Frankel, Continuously may go favored in the Burke but he has done bettors no favors this year as the beaten favorite in four graded stakes. Continuously was second in the San Luis Obispo and Sunset handicaps, sixth in the Charles Whittingham Handicap, and seventh in the Del Mar Handicap.

The Burke field includes Hatif, who was last of 13 in the Arlington Million, and Pellegrino, a distance specialist.

Hatif ran so poorly in the Arlington Million in August that trainer Paulo Lobo's first reaction was shock.

"He failed completely," Lobo said. "He came back very well. I don't know if he didn't like the grass."

A Brazilian-bred, Hatif won an optional claimer at Del Mar July 26, his only win in seven starts in the U.S.

Pellegrino, another Brazilian-bred, returns after a 10-week break following a fourth-place finish in the Escondido Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 4. Trainer Don Burke insists that Pellegrino is best with considerable time between starts. He cited as an example a six-week break between mid-March and early May when Pellegrino returned to win an allowance race over 1 1/4 miles at Hollywood Park.