03/04/2005 12:00AM

Mustanfar climbing toward the top

Mustanfar, who won an allowance race impressively last month, tries for his first Grade 1 in the Gulfstream BC Handicap.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - was behind several of the top 3-year-old turf horses in what was an extraordinarily deep division in 2004. If his 4-year-old debut was any indication, he may have caught up.

How far Mustanfar has progressed will be better known on Sunday when he faces 10 rivals in the Grade 1, $250,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap. The 1 3/8-mile turf race tops an 11-race card that also includes the Grade 3 The Very One Handicap for marathon turf fillies and mares.

While Kitten's Joy, Artie Schiller, Timo, and Prince Arch grabbed the majority of headlines in the 3-year-old turf division last year, Mustanfar won a pair of graded stakes and was competitive in a couple of other graded events.

His breakthrough race came in the Grade 3 Sycamore Breeders' Cup Handicap last October at Keeneland. His victory that day earned him a start in the Breeders' Cup Turf, where he finished fifth, beaten 7 3/4 lengths. That was his 11th race of the year.

After a freshening, Mustanfar won a fourth-level allowance race by 2 3/4 lengths with a powerful closing kick here on Feb. 10. While the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap is a step up in class for Mustanfar, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is hopeful his horse won't have to run that much better than he did last time.

"Hopefully, he'll run equally as good," McLaughlin said. "The distance is what would make him step forward a little bit. He definitely wants to run a mile and three-eighths."

McLaughlin said that from 3 to 4, Mustanfar "just really filled out and did very well with a little freshening.''

Mustanfar is a closer, and that style had not fared well recently with the turf course, which is in rock-hard condition. McLaughlin is hopeful that heavy rains Thursday night into Friday took some of the sting out of the course.

Mustanfar will break from post 11 under Jose Santos.

Host ran down the pace-setting Navesink River by a neck in the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida Handicap on Jan. 30. Host is 3 for 3 over the Gulfstream turf course. Two of those wins came at 1 3/8 miles.

Host's win in the Mac Diarmida came off a three-month layoff, following a narrow loss in the John Henry Stakes at The Meadowlands. Trainer John Kimmel felt Host would have won that race with a better trip.

Making matters worse was that shortly after John Henry, Host was given a Butazolidin shot outside the vein in his neck, and that caused his jugular to become inflamed.

"He recovered well," Kimmel said. "He came off the long layoff and ran very well in the Mac Diarmida. I would expect some further improvement on Sunday. He's only had one race since October; he should even run better.''

Quest Star, who makes his seasonal debut in here, is another runner who has excelled at Gulfstream Park, going 3 for 4 over the turf. His lone loss came in this race last year, when he finished fifth, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths by Hard Buck.

Ken McPeek trained Hard Buck. On Saturday, he will send out 119-pound highweight Prince Arch. Prince Arch was one of just two horses to beat turf champion Kitten's Joy last year, nipping him by a head in the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup at Churchill Downs. Prince Arch has not been out since running down Mustanfar by a head in the Grade 3 Saranac last Labor Day at Saratoga.

McPeek said he is using this race as a prep for the $2 million Sheema Classic in Dubai on March 26.

"I want to see if he likes the distance," McPeek said. "I think he wants more ground. He likes it soft. I don't think he'll like this turf course."

Trainer Bobby Frankel elected to run Gigli rather than Burning Sun. Gigli is 0 for 6 in this country. Burning Sun will run in the Explosive Bid at Fair Grounds, Frankel said.