01/09/2003 12:00AM

Pass Rush looks like lone speed

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NEW YORK - Saturday is Derby Day! The $100,000 Golden Gate Derby, that is. And, while Aqueduct doesn't have a Derby, it does have a competitive running of the $100,000 Affectionately Handicap.

The strongest stakes action Saturday, however, is exactly where you would expect it to be in the middle of January - at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park.

Santa Anita has a Grade 2 stakes doubleheader with the $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes, a steppingstone to next month's Strub Stakes, and the $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap, which attracted Tates Creek and Megahertz, possible major players in the female turf division this year. The main event at Gulfstream is the $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap. The Hal's Hope used to be known as the Cr?me Fraiche, and is a springboard to next month's Donn Handicap.

Here are the three stakes I'm focusing on:

San Fernando

Pass Rush will ship from Florida to Southern California for the San Fernando, and shipping east to west is never easy. Nevertheless, he is still a strong selection. First, Pass Rush is in excellent form. His sharp second last time out in the Great State Challenge Classic to the tough, in-form older horse Continental Red was Pass Rush's third straight strong performance.

More importantly, Pass Rush is unquestionably the controlling speed in this race. There is a complete lack of genuine early speed here, so it would take a disastrous start by Pass Rush, or an unforeseen suicide mission by one of his opponents, for Pass Rush not to put this field in an immediate hole right out of the gate. Once he does, Pass Rush is plenty good enough not to allow his opponents to climb out of it.

Hal's Hope

If I like Pass Rush at Santa Anita, then I can certainly like Najran in this spot. After all, Najran beat Pass Rush in a photo two starts back.

I respect Najran, but I like Hail the Chief a little more. I expect that Hail the Chief will be a better price than Najran, who will take a little extra money as part of an entry. And, when Hail the Chief finished behind Najran last time out in the Clark Handicap, he was coming off a six-month layoff, while Najran was in peak form riding the crest of a four-race win streak.

I think Hail the Chief will be much tighter for this, and he's a handful when on his game. He showed that with two strong performances over this track last year, followed by two galloping stakes victories on the Chicago circuit. Hail the Chief may also fall into a perfect trip here. Najran prefers to go on with it early, and so does the speedy Saint Verre. Hail the Chief has positional speed, but he's also tractable enough to sit right off them early in the garden spot.

Affectionately

Zonk won't be a great price in this race, although the presence of With Ability, who has been the favorite in her last four starts, and odds-on in her last two, will help inflate Zonk's price a little. But, Zonk has a great chance to win this race, just as she did last year. In fact, Zonk repeats the same pattern that led to her 2002 Affectionately score: She comes into this after competing in Aqueduct's Top Flight.

If anything, Zonk's effort in the most recent Top Flight was a little better than the one that led to her Affectionately win last year. In last year's Top Flight, Zonk was fourth, beaten two lengths. Even though she earned an identical 97 Beyer Figure in this year's Top Flight, she ran better this time around. She set the pace and was beaten less than two lengths by Sightseek, who, barring injury, will be one of the best older females in the nation this year. Zonk is more effective as a stalker, and she can return to that style Saturday, sitting off a pace contested by With Ability and Pocus Hocus.