06/08/2003 11:00PM

Optional claimer a tossup


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A strong performance by any of the 3-year-olds in Wednesday's Hollywood Park feature could result in a start in the Oceanside Stakes on opening day at Del Mar, July 23.

Plenty of colts and geldings have a chance to make a positive impression in Wednesday's $51,000 optional claimer on turf.

Banshee King and American Fury were second and fourth in the Grade 3 Will Rogers Stakes on May 25. Helms Deep was fourth in the Academy Road Stakes at Santa Anita in March. Lunarco is coming off a gritty win against statebreds May 15. Gentlestone, Royal Place, Six Numbers, and Sweet Return ran well in recent optional claimers. Jefe de Jefes completes the field and will be a longshot.

There is no standout. Banshee King is likely to lead, but the distance of 1 1/8 miles on turf is the longest trip of his career. He led by two lengths in the stretch of the Will Rogers, but finished second to Private Chef.

"They watered the grass course and I don't think it played to front-runners," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "Our goal is to run good and have the six weeks before the Oceanside."

Helms Deep was intended for the Forerunner Stakes at Keeneland in April, but was sidelined briefly by a quarter crack. Trainer Carla Gaines redirected the colt to the Ascot Handicap at Bay Meadows on May 10, and was disappointed when he finished sixth.

"I'm hoping the Bay Meadows race was me being a little anxious," Gaines said. "We thought he might have had a little shot, but he might have been a little short."

Six Numbers, Gentlestone, and Royal Place met in an optional claimer on May 22, finishing second through fourth. Gentlestone and Royal Place had troubled trips, getting stuck in traffic in the stretch. Six Numbers rallied wide and missed winning by a half-length.

Lunarco has won on turf from the front and as a stalker. Trainer Ted H. West is not looking toward Del Mar - at least not yet. He wants to see Lunarco have an easier trip than the one he had on May 15, when he led throughout in a one-mile allowance race.

"I couldn't believe he kept going because of the trip he had," West said. "He really kept fighting."

The same determination will be needed in Wednesday's fifth race, which could offer clues for future stakes.