11/22/2001 12:00AM

No question, El Cielo the right horse

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For the right reasons - including full fields and top-class racing - this weekend's Autumn Turf Festival is the highlight of the fall meet at Hollywood Park.

Two graded stakes were to be run Friday and a total of four more graded stakes will be run Saturday and Sunday, offering handicapping-related questions and parimutuel-related opportunity. The first question Saturday regards the marquee horse of the festival.

Question: Is Val Royal the most likely winner of the Grade 2 Citation?

Answer: No.

Val Royal left no doubt he was the world's best turf miler Oct. 27 at Belmont Park, but he faces a fresh, new challenge Saturday. El Cielo's reputation as a turf sprinter is deserved, but it overlooks his brilliance around two turns. Truth is, El Cielo's career-best effort was in a one-mile race in January. He broke last, then unleashed a blistering 22.51 second final quarter-mile to win going away.

In the Citation, El Cielo will be positioned in front of deep closer Val Royal. A horse who possesses both tactical speed and a finishing kick often proves uncatchable. El Cielo's workout Sunday was reportedly sensational, his last race was terrific, and 3-1 would represent value. Said El Cielo's trainer, Craig Dollase: "He's good now, so we're taking a swing."

Question: Is allowance-winner Paxtecum good enough win the Grade 3 Generous?

Answer: The question applies to most United States-based runners in the one-mile stakes for 2-year-olds. On speed figures, little separates Paxtecum and Keeneland shipper Stage Call. As impressive as both colts were last out, they weren't beating much.

Paxtecum beat a colt who runs the same race every time; Stage Call beat a moderate filly (Daisygo) and an eight-start maiden (Midwatch), who returned and finished third at even-money at Calder.

Miesque's Approval, from Belmont, was all out to beat a New York-bred whose only previous win was a loose-on-the-lead triumph vs. statebreds.

But both Paxtecum and Stage Call possess a terrific turn of foot, are lightly raced, and are improving in every start. While European imports Red Briar, National Park, and even Hot Trotter could make an impact, the advantage goes to potential stars Stage Call and Paxtecum, in that order.

Question: Does Spook Express deserve lows odds Sunday in the Grade 1 Matriarch?

Answer: Absolutely not.

Spook Express finished second in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but someone had to finish second, and all Spook Express did was parlay a perfect trip into an otherwise moderate finish. She could win the Matriarch, but Golden Apples and Starine have more going for them.

Late speed is the hallmark of a top-class turf runner, and few fillies or mares this season have demonstrated a stronger finisher than Golden Apples. In the Del Mar Oaks, she smoked the final three furlongs in under 35 seconds. In the Las Palmas Handicap, she smoked the final three furlongs in a shade over 33 seconds. The 3-year-old filly has stamped herself as, potentially, the best female turf runner in California, though she'll have to deal with Bobby Frankel-trained Starine.

It is Frankel's contention that Starine's outside post contributed to her defeat in the Breeders' Cup, and he may be right. Instead of finding cover, she would up pressing the pace three wide before chucking it in.

Said Frankel: "You'll see the real Starine on Sunday."

I've already seen the real Golden Apples, and Starine has her work cut out, especially from post 12.

Question: Is there a longshot lurking in the Hollywood Derby?

Answer: In a 14-horse field, isn't there always?

As he has throughout the Turf Festival, Frankel holds many of the aces in the race for 3-year-olds. His recently imported Denon possesses the best European form, which does not necessarily mean he is the most probable winner. In fact, Frankel's other three starter - Blue Steller, Mizzen Mast, and Aldebaran- have all started and won in the U.S. Even Frankel admits European form takes a back seat once a horse has raced in the U.S. That still does not answer the longshot question.

No handicapper in his right mind would identify Learing at Kathy as the most probable winner of the Hollywood Derby. However, profitable wagering is not contingent on picking winners. Rather, it is about picking bets. Learing at Kathy had been off more than five months when he returned Nov. 7 in a minor stake. He went one-paced throughout in a comeback that was mildly disappointing.

Off the fourth-place finish, high-percentage trainer Vladimir Cerin does not step backward with Learing at Kathy. Instead, he pushes on. By raising Learing at Kathy in class following a losing effort, Cerin is stating emphatically that the comeback prep served its purpose. Learing at Kathy will improve second start back. How much will he improve? Who really knows? At the price, it's not worth trying to figure.

A bet at huge odds on Learing at Kathy, graded stakes-placed on this course in April, is a gamble worth taking.