01/31/2002 12:00AM

Pelirrojo earns shot to step up in San Rafael


ARCADIA, Calif. - Pelirrojo passed his first test as a 3-year-old with a victory in an allowance race Wednesday at Santa Anita. His next assignment, the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes on March 2, will dictate his short-term future.

The win on Wednesday left trainer John Sadler optimistic that Pelirrojo can show further improvement in important 3-year-old stakes in coming weeks.

"I like the way he ran," Sadler said. "He can close."

Last of seven for the first half-mile, Pelirrojo closed along the rail to win by a neck over the heavily favored Raven Power. The final time for the mile was a slow 1:37.93, but the main track was playing slower than normal.

Before Wednesday's race, Sadler cautioned that Pelirrojo had to win to stay on the Triple Crown trail. Now, Pelirrojo has won 2 of 3 starts for Granja Vista Del Rio Stable, including an impressive maiden score at Hollywood Park on Dec. 2. Wednesday's win helped erase the disappointment of a fourth-place finish in an allowance race over six furlongs on Dec. 26.

"If anything, he's light on seasoning," Sadler said.

Of course, the next race will be more difficult. The one-mile San Rafael is a vital prep to the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

"This sets him up for the San Rafael Stakes," Sadler said. "With a gelding we'll be happy to go along, but we don't feel pressure. I think we're in a good spot because I think I have a horse that can run a distance."

Some of the also-rans from Wednesday's race are unlikely to try stakes in their next starts. Raven Power will reappear in an allowance race, according to trainer Bruce Headley. So will fourth-place finisher Puerto Banus, trainer Bob Baffert said.

Will 'Irisheyes' rebound or regress?

A loss by Irisheyesareflying in the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 5 has left John Dolan uncertain what to expect in Sunday's $250,000 San Antonio Handicap.

After winning the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs and the California Cup Classic here in November, Irisheyesareflying ran fifth in the San Pasqual, finishing a non-threatening three lengths behind Wooden Phone.

"Going into the turn, I thought he was in trouble," Dolan said. "Hopefully that was not his race or we're going to have to start shipping around. I'd be happy with a good run."

The competition will not be easier in the Grade 2 San Antonio, run over 1 1/8 miles. Lido Palace will be the starting highweight and favorite. A finalist for the Eclipse Award as the nation's top older horse of 2001, Lido Palace won the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park last summer.

Gander, who finished third in the Whitney Handicap, is making his California debut. A 6-year-old gray gelding, Gander won the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup last September but was ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic in October and fifth in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23.

"It's going to be tough to beat Lido Palace and those kind, but he did run a solid third to him at Saratoga," said John Terranova, who trains Gander.

Gander will be a longshot in a field expected to include Bosque Redondo, Euchre, Redattore, Seinne, and Straight Flush. Gander will carry 114 pounds, seven fewer than Lido Palace.

"We gave him a short break after the Clark," Terranova said. "We turned him out on the farm in Kentucky for a little mental and physical freshening, but it wasn't enough downtime for him to lose much conditioning."

* Val Royal, the winner of the 2001 Breeders' Cup Mile, breezed a half-mile in 48.80 seconds on Thursday. Trained by Julio Canani, the 6-year-old horse is being pointed to the $300,000 Kilroe Mile on March 2, a race in which he was second last year.

* Bella Bella Bella, the winner of the Santa Ysabel Stakes on Jan. 6, worked six furlongs in 1:13.20, the fastest of 34 recorded works at the distance. Trained by Jenine Sahadi, Bella Bella Bella is on course for the $200,000 Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Feb. 10.

* Happyanunoit, one of the top turf females of the last few years, will be bred to Giant's Causeway, according to owner John Amerman. Happyanunoit was retired last summer due to a minor injury. Among her major wins were the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes in 1999, the Grade 1 Beverly Hills Handicap in 2000, and the Grade 1 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap last year.