07/01/2003 11:00PM

Oaks attracts top-shelf field of 14

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Santa Catarina landed the advantageous post 4 when a full field of 14 3-year-old fillies were entered on Wednesday for Saturday's $750,000 American Oaks, which in only its second running has already become one of the top stakes races at the Hollywood Park summer season.

Santa Catarina will be making her first start on turf, and her first start beyond 1 1/8 miles, in the 1 1/4-mile Oaks, but her sharp recent form convinced Hollywood Park's linemaker, Russ Hudak, to make her the 7-2 choice on the morning line. Santa Catarina is coming off a four-length victory in the Hollywood Oaks, and she finished second in the Kentucky Oaks earlier this spring.

"Her last race was perfect," Santa Catarina's trainer, Bob Baffert, said after Wednesday's post draw. "It all depends on how she gets out of the gate. A lot depends on her mentality. Last time, she came out of the gate on her own.

"At Pimlico," Baffert added, referring to Santa Catarina's third-place finish in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, "she got all worked up going to the gate."

Baffert also will run Atlantic Ocean, who won the Miesque Stakes on Hollywood's turf last fall.

The Oaks has attracted top runners both in this country and from Europe. Sand Springs and Personal Legend, the one-two finishers in Churchill Downs's Regret Stakes on June 14, head the United States-based runners.

The best of the Europeans is Dimitrova, who finished third in the Irish 1000 Guineas in her last start. She is the 9-2 second choice on Hudak's line. Patrick Smullen, trainer Dermot Weld's stable rider, is coming in for the race. Italian Oaks winner Meridiana, and the lightly raced Liska, who was group-stakes placed in France, also are among the leading contenders.

Megahertz and Dublino, now two of the leading female turf runners on the West Coast, began their rivalry by taking the top two spots in the inaugural American Oaks last year.

New contract for gate crews

Officials with several California racetracks and members of the starting gate crew have reached a tentative agreement on a five-year wage contract for gate crew members at the state's three racing circuits.

The two sides held meetings on Monday and Tuesday at Hollywood Park. Gate crew members, also known as assistant starters, at Hollywood Park and northern California will vote on the process in coming days. Assistant starters at Los Alamitos have approved the plan.

Last week, assistant starters notified the California Horse Racing Board of their intent to strike July 11 if an agreement is not reached.

According to Travis Keil, the highest-ranking assistant starter at the Hollywood Park and Del Mar meetings, the members have reduced their wage requests in exchange for retirement health care benefits.

"We were so happy to get that back in the plan," Keil said of the benefits. "Our job, you can't do for a long time."

Assistant starters achieved their goal of a three-tier pay scale based on experience.

Currently, most assistant starters receive $125 per day. According to Keil, the wage will remain the same for those with less than 100 days of work experience. Assistant starters with one to three years of experience will receive $150 a day.

Assistant starters with more experience will receive annual increases through the terms of the contract. The maximum salary will be $210 per day in the fifth year of the contract for members with eight or more years of experience.

The assistant starters had asked for a three-tiered plan with a maximum wage of $225 a day.

Keil said the compromise was worthwhile, noting that he started on the gate crew in 1986 at $119 a day and currently makes $127. He said previous negotiations had not resulted in higher wages.

"In the past, we got nothing," he said. "We're getting it back to where it should be."

Cayoke should be closing

Since arriving here from France last fall, Cayoke, who starts in Saturday's $300,000 Triple Bend Breeders' Cup Handicap, has made as many starts in Asia for trainer Julio Canani as he has in California.

Last fall, Cayoke finished sixth in the Hong Kong Mile. During the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, Cayoke won an allowance race on the hillside turf course, lowering the course record by .01 of a second, to 1:11.45. He followed with a fifth in the Grade 2 Kilroe Mile on turf.

Four weeks later, Cayoke made his first start on dirt, finishing fourth in the $1 million Godolphin Mile in Dubai on March 29.

"I thought he could win it," Canani said. "He was in front at the sixteenth pole."

In that race, Cayoke was close to the lead throughout, which the trainer insists is not the 6-year-old's best style. In the seven-furlong Triple Bend, Canani wants jockey David Flores to position Cayoke as a closer.

"I really think he has a good chance," he said. "There will be some pace. He'll be off the lead and can do some running."

Cayoke is one of 10 runners in the Grade 1 Triple Bend, which is led by Avanzado, the winner of the Palos Verdes Handicap. Trained by Doug O'Neill, Avanzado has not started since finishing second in the $2 million Golden Shaheen Sprint in Dubai on the same March program that included the Godolphin Mile.

Other top contenders in the Triple Bend are Bluesthestandard, a former claimer who has won two stakes this year; Joey Franco, a two-time stakes winner at this meeting; and Publication, who has been stakes placed in his last two starts.

Four turf races in pick six

The American Oaks is the first leg of a guaranteed $1 million pick six on Saturday's program that includes four turf races.

The pick six also includes an outstanding allowance race on dirt, the $100,000 Royal Heroine Stakes for fillies and mares on turf, the Triple Bend Handicap, a turf race over 1 1/16 miles for female claimers, and a maiden race on turf over 1 1/16 miles.

The allowance race on dirt matches Sky Jack, the winner of the 2002 Hollywood Gold Cup; General Challenge, the winner of the 2000 Santa Anita Handicap; Romanceishope, the winner of the 2001 Del Mar Derby; and Calkins Road, the winner of the 2002 California Cup Classic.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen