04/01/2003 1:00AM

Old pro back for Garcia barn

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Native Desert's 10-year-old legs are as cold as his barn, which presents a handicapping dilemma in the feature race Thursday at Santa Anita.

The 6 1/2-furlong turf sprint attracted a field of 12, none more accomplished than California-bred comebacker Native Desert. A gelding, he has won 21 races and more than $1.7 million from 66 starts, most of it for skilled trainer Juan Garcia and owner Miguel Rubio. This winter, however, has been unusually quiet for Garcia, who entered the week having won just one race from 58 starters.

The statistic is an aberration for Garcia, and the drought may end Thursday in a two-other-than/optional $80,000 claimer. Native Desert's main rivals include course specialists Islander and Devil's Horn, lightly raced Sunset Place, fast-working Australian import Canny Fly, and comebackers Stardan and Sporting Lad. Though Native Desert is most effective running long and is unraced since last July, the race is his to lose. He is entered for the $80,000 claiming price.

"He's acting like a 3-year-old right now," said Garcia's son and assistant trainer, Victor Garcia. Proving the point, Garcia rolled up his right shirtsleeve to reveal the bruise where Native Desert tried to remove a chunk from Garcia's bicep. At age 10, Native Desert is full of life, and looks terrific physically.

"He's going to be fresh. He's going to break pretty sharp," Victor Garcia said. "It's nice to have him back in action; he's the old-timer now." Native Desert has trained steadily since recovering from an ankle problem and will be ridden Thursday by Gary Stevens.

To win the race, Native Desert must catch another veteran - Islander. A front-running 8-year-old who has finished first or second in eight of 11 on the downhill turf, Islander was claimed for $50,000 last out by trainer Ted H. West. A series of fast works suggests Islander will follow a familiar pattern. Five of West's 11 winners this meet were in their first race off the claim, or private acquisitions. Islander has won 14 of 37. Native Desert and Islander have combined to win 35 of 103. The combined win total for the rest of the field is 28 for 148.

Islander faces serious pace from Devil's Horn, and the front-runners could set it up for a closer. Sunset Place, a half-brother to Grade 1 turf winner Affluent, is trying grass for the first time and could fall into a good trip. Stardan has not raced since last April and likely need the race, while Reel 'em In and Bourbon County appear in tough despite sharp current form.

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