02/04/2003 1:00AM

One to catch is one to beat - in two races


ARCADIA, Calif. - The 5-year-old mare Southern Oasis and the 6-year-old gelding Devil's Horn entered separate races Thursday at Santa Anita, but they will employ similar strategies in the two best races on the card. In both races, the horse to beat is the horse to catch.

Southern Oasis should be loose on the lead in the second race, a two-other-than turf allowance for fillies and mares at a mile. Devil's Horn has one gear - full speed ahead - and he figures to use it in the seventh race, a downhill turf sprint for open company, nonwinners-twice-other than. Barring the unexpected, both front-runners could be long gone.

At age 5, Southern Oasis has raced only nine times. "We've had little setbacks with her," trainer Ron McAnally said.

The setbacks include persistent allergies and a partially blind right eye. McAnally said Southern Oasis can see in front of her, but her peripheral vision is hindered. It may not matter Thursday, because Southern Oasis should be well in front as the field's only front-runner.

Southern Oasis has improved greatly since being stretched to two turns. In her first route Sept. 1 at Del Mar, she was on her way to victory when she spooked from a brown patch, hopped while in full stride, nearly dropped Laffit Pincay Jr., and lost by less than a length. She did not race again for four months.

McAnally said Southern Oasis has "some kind of allergy" that causes her to cough, and that is one reason why she was off until Jan. 12. The wait was worth it. Southern Oasis took control in a one-other-than turf route, and waltzed by five lengths. Said McAnally: "Her allergy has been cleared up."

Assuming Southern Oasis reproduces the effort on Thursday, she should lead gate to wire. The turf rails will be set at 24 feet, which generally favors speed. Rivals include Revenante, runner-up versus similar company on Jan. 17; Melody Blue, a Richard Mandella-trained European import who was Group 3-placed in France; and Moving Experience, Nanogram, and Abbey Bridge.

Up-front strategy will be similar in the seventh race. Devil's Horn was harassed on Jan. 11 through the fastest downhill fractions of the meet (a 21.03-second opening quarter, a 42.1-second half-mile), and finished fifth, beaten only two lengths. He should gain an easier lead Thursday against Primerica and French import Ulterior Motives.

Devil's Horn has won 3 of 4 starts down the hill, and can coast Thursday if he slows down early.

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