07/31/2002 12:00AM

Palmeiro will need his top effort

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Six times in the last seven years, trainer John Sadler has left Del Mar with at least one stakes win.

On Sunday, he can stretch that for another season when Palmeiro starts in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap, one of the meeting's top races for older horses.

Six months ago, it would have seemed unlikely that Palmeiro would be a stakes contender at Del Mar, following an eighth-place finish in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita.

But since he was gelded in late winter, Palmeiro has finished third in the Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate Fields and won twice - an allowance race at Hollywood Park and the All-American Handicap at Bay Meadows.

The San Diego, run over 1 1/16 miles, will be Palmeiro's toughest race since the Strub Stakes. Sadler passed the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 14 in favor of the San Diego.

"I didn't want to run a mile and a quarter yet," Sadler said of the Gold Cup distance.

In the San Diego, Palmeiro is a leading contender against Bosque Redondo, Congaree, Dig for It, Euchre, Grey Memo, Investor's Dream, and Nates Colony.

"He'll have to be better than ever, but he's training better than ever," Sadler said. "Whether he is good enough is the question."

Congaree is the 120-pound topweight and likely favorite, but has had mixed form this year. He won the Lone Star Park Handicap in May, but was a dull sixth in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 15.

"It's a question of whether he'll be back to his best," Sadler said of Congaree.

As the expected front-runner, Congaree could help Palmeiro. In his last two wins, Palmeiro has been rated behind the pace and taken over at the top of the stretch. He led by 2 1/2 lengths in midstretch of the All-American Handicap, and won by three-quarters of a length over Moonlight Meeting. Last Sunday, the form of that race was flattered when Moonlight Meeting won the Mt. Rainier Breeders' Cup Handicap at Emerald Downs.

"My horse is best laying second," Sadler said.

Sadler, who turned 46 on Tuesday, had an excellent meeting at Hollywood Park. His stable finished fourth in the standings with 16 winners, seven fewer than leading trainer Bobby Frankel.

"I'm always steady," Sadler said.

Through the first week of the Del Mar meeting, Sadler had two winners.

Calbred running with top flight

The 3-year-old filly division is annually full of top-class imports from Europe. This year, Super High, a California-bred filly, has staked a spot among the top milers in the group.

Super High, owned and bred by John Harris and trained by Carla Gaines, is the only two-time stakes winner in Saturday's $150,000 San Clemente Handicap.

During the Hollywood Park meeting, the front-running Super High won the California Sires Stakes for statebreds on May 31 and the Flawlessly Stakes against open company on July 5.

With four wins from eight starts and earnings of $265,688, Super High has been widely regarded among statebreds, but her victory in the Flawlessly Stakes confirmed her ability against a tougher field. Only two of the eight fillies in that field had raced entirely in the United States.

"She was the hometown girl," Harris said of Super High. "There were Kentucky-breds in the field, but they had been racing in Europe."

Super High's dam, Image of Super, was recently named California's broodmare of the year. She has had four stakes winners. Super High, who is by High Brite, is the most recent.

The competition in the one-mile San Clemente includes the French import Little Treasure and Alozaina, a game third in the $500,000 American Oaks on July 6.

Super High shares top weight of 119 pounds with Alozaina.

"We're in a good situation," Harris said. "If we're going to run out of conditions, at least we're making some money."

Siphonic expected for Oak Tree

Siphonic, the winner of two major stakes last year who was taken out of training in March because of an ankle injury, is expected to make his comeback at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in October.

Trainer David Hofmans said Siphonic breezed a quarter-mile in 23.60 on Wednesday and will have a three-furlong breeze next week.

The 3-year-old Siphonic won the Breeders' Futurity and Hollywood Futurity, but was beaten in two starts at Santa Anita earlier this year.

Rock Opera ready to go

Rock Opera, the winner of a division of the Oceanside Stakes on July 24 in stakes-record time, is being pointed for the $150,000 La Jolla Handicap for 3-year-olds on Aug. 17.

Trainer Clifford Sise had intended to wait for the Del Mar Derby on Sept. 7, but said Rock Opera emerged from the Oceanside in outstanding condition.

"He came out of the race better than he's ever come out of a race," Sise said.