04/26/2002 12:00AM

Native Desert vs. Spinelessjellyfish again


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The rivalry between Native Desert and Spinelessjellyfish continues in Sunday's $175,000 Khaled Stakes at Hollywood Park, a competitive turf race that has drawn two intriguing supporting players - Fit for a King and Hugh Hefner.

For the past few seasons, Native Desert and Spinelessjellyfish have set the standard among California-bred turf milers.

They finished in a dead heat in the California Turf Championship last September at Bay Meadows, and two months later were separated by only a head when Native Desert won the California Cup Mile at Santa Anita.

The rivalry has not been as keen at Hollywood Park. In the last two years, the Khaled Stakes, run over 1 1/16 miles on turf, has been Spinelessjellyfish's springtime payday.

Now a 6-year-old, Spinelessjellyfish enters Sunday's race in the midst of a five-race losing streak dating back to the Bay Meadows race. Nonetheless, he deserves to be favored in an attempt for a rare hat trick of stakes wins.

Trained by Jenine Sahadi, Spinelessjellyfish finished second in the Crystal Water Handicap at Santa Anita on March 24, rallying from fourth under Chris McCarron to miss catching Hugh Hefner by a nose. Sahadi credits an equipment change for an improved effort from his previous starts.

"I was very encouraged," Sahadi said. "Chris said he relaxed more with the blinkers off. I hope he can repeat the race he ran the other day."

The Khaled Stakes will be Spinelessjellyfish's first start at Hollywood Park since he finished sixth in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile last May.

"Spinelessjellyfish is a good horse, one notch below the best," Sahadi said. "When you put him in with Cal-breds, he runs hard. He got beat three lengths in the Shoemaker against the best horses around."

The Khaled Stakes is by far the most competitive race on Sunday's California Gold Rush program, which showcases statebreds. There are seven entrants, including Ninebanks, Lily's Lad, and Visual Energy.

Native Desert was third in the Crystal Water Handicap, his first start of the year. After a poor start, he was still eighth at the quarter pole and may have been closer at the finish had he not encountered trouble through the stretch. A 9-year-old, Native Desert has won 19 of 63 starts and $1.6 million.

Fit for a King and Hugh Hefner will set the pace. Fit for a King is seeking his eighth consecutive win, a streak that covers turf sprints at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park since March 2001. A 9-year-old, he has yet to win a stakes.

Hugh Hefner won his first stakes on turf in the Crystal Water Handicap.

A 5-year-old, he has alternated in his career between sensible starts against statebreds and being completely overmatched on the national stage. He followed a win in the California Sires Stakes at Santa Anita in 1999 with a 13th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park.

At 3, he ran a decent second in the Snow Chief Stakes on the inaugural California Gold Rush Day, but then jumped into the Triple Crown at the insistence of owner Ed Nahem. Hugh Hefner finished sixth in the 2000 Preakness Stakes and eighth in the Belmont Stakes. He did not start again until February, when he finished ninth in a sprint on the hillside turf course at Santa Anita.

"He had a couple of problems," Jones said, declining to reveal the nature of the layoff. "I had him a week away from a race and he had another problem. He's had some bumps and bruises. We knew how good he was, and we decided to give him the time he needed."

In all three of his wins, Hugh Hefner has been on the lead. He was in front on the final turn of the Preakness Stakes, but faded through the final furlong to finish 8 1/2 lengths behind Red Bullet.

"He doesn't like to be behind horses," Jones said.

Combined with the presence of Fit for a King, there is little doubt that the pace will be genuine in the Khaled, setting up a potential epic finish among California's tough turf milers.