01/01/2004 12:00AM

Olmodavor's star search audition

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Richard Mandella has won major dirt races for older horses with the likes of Dare and Go, Gentlemen, Malek, Pleasantly Perfect, and Siphon, but to hear him tell it, Olmodavor has the potential to be as good as any of them.

There's just one big "if."

"If not for his ankles, he could win everything," the trainer said. "He had a big chip taken out of an ankle before he was even broke. He's a first-class horse. But we have to stop and rest him once in a while."

Olmodavor, now age 5, has raced only nine times. A son of A.P. Indy, he has won four of those starts, and has finished second three other times, including a runner-up finish to probable Horse of the Year Mineshaft in the New Orleans Handicap. But his career has several major gaps, including a rest from last March until October because his ankles flared anew.

Olmodavor will embark on another quest to reach the elite of the division on Saturday, when he runs in the Grade 2, $150,000 at Santa Anita. Olmodavor will be seeking his second straight win, having captured the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Dec. 6.

"He came out of that race great. He's doing great," Mandella said Thursday morning.

The San Pasqual is the first important race of the year for older horses seeking berths in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6. Pleasantly Perfect, Mandella's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, is awaiting the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio Handicap Jan. 31. The San Antonio will be the next stop for Olmodavor should he win Saturday. He carries top weight of 118 pounds, including leading rider Alex Solis, and faces six rivals. His late-running style figures to be flattered by the expected sharp early pace.

Nose the Trade should be part of that pace. He set quick fractions in the Native Diver, opened a three-length lead at midstretch, but faltered late and was caught by Olmodavor.

The swift Hot Market is making his third start since a layoff, and will have his third different rider, David Flores. Hot Market was fifth in the On Trust Handicap for California-breds last month at Hollywood Park.

Victor Espinoza, who rode Hot Market in the On Trust, instead rides Star Cross, who came from well back to take the Forty Niner Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on Nov. 28. He has the style to make an impact late.

Total Impact finished fifth and last in the Native Diver, but was beaten by only five lengths in his first start since May. He won the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park before going to the sidelines, so if he bounces back with a top effort, he figures right there.