09/04/2004 12:00AM

Ninebanks goes after three-peat

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Ninebanks loves the Longden Turf Course at Bay Meadows, especially on Labor Day.

For the past two years, Ninebanks has won the $100,000 California Turf Championship, and on Monday he'll attempt to make it three straight in the one-mile turf race for Cal-breds.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer can't remember ever winning the same stakes race three years running with the same horse.

Ninebanks has seven wins in 14 starts over the turf here, with three seconds and a third. He's at his best going one mile, with four wins in five starts at the distance. The one time he lost at a mile was in last spring's Grade 2 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Handicap, when he ran fourth when coming off a six-month layoff. He won the race in 2003.

"He does pretty well over here at Bay Meadows, but he's also done well at Golden Gate Fields," said Hollendorfer, who claimed the 6-year-old gelding for Peter Abruzzo on Aug. 3, 2001.

Ninebanks has won nine of 27 starts for Hollendorfer, earning $627,208 since the claim.

"He's earned his way," said Hollendorfer. "He's lasted a long time. He's had problems, but we've been able to overcome them. Unless he's 100 percent, we don't work him. If there's any doubt, we don't work him and don't run him.

"It's often touch-and-go with him, but we've had him on a regular training schedule, and he's trained up to the race fairly well."

Though he's a hard-trier, Ninebanks isn't always the easiest horse to ride, but Ron Warren Jr., northern California's top turf rider, knows him and fits him well.

"I try not to mess with him too much," Warren has said of Ninebanks. "He kind of resents it when you push too much."

Based on recent history, Ninebanks's toughest challenger may be Surprise Halo, who will be ridden by Jason Lumpkins, who has returned to Bay Meadows for the fall meet. Surprise Halo has been second to Ninebanks in the race the past two years, losing by a half-length in 2002 and a neck last year.

Another primary challenger is Stage Player, who has earned $358,057 and has won three straight, including the Claiming Crown Emerald for trainer Jeff Mullins.

Trainer Craig Dollase has entered a pair of recent allowance winners, Blue Afleet, who has won two straight and makes his first start around two turns, and Super Strut, whose three career wins have all come on the turf.