06/08/2005 12:00AM

Pellegrino now Burke's one and only

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Benoit & Associates
Pellegrino has lost twice in two starts since his Turf Cup victory.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Pellegrino, the winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup last December, means everything to trainer Don Burke II.

When Pellegrino starts in Saturday's $350,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park, he will represent the entire Burke stable.

"This is my last horse," he said. "I'm down to a one-horse stable. That's a better percentage than Bobby Frankel has for Grade 1 winners in his barn."

As wacky as that statistic may be, it is a small consolation to Burke, 38. He began the meeting with three horses, but Spark Sept was sent to Kentucky to be bred, and Freddy, a Group 1 winner in South America, was sent to England to be tried over hurdles.

Burke, who has never had a large stable, trains for Gary Tanaka, the London financier. Last month, Tanaka was arrested in New York on charges of allegedly stealing investors' money and using it to purchase racehorses. He was released last Friday but must stay in New York.

Burke said Tanaka's arrest has not affected the training of Pellegrino, echoing a statement made by other Southern California trainers who have horses for Tanaka.

"It's business as usual," Burke said. "I spoke with him on Monday, and he sounded good."

Burke went on his own in 2001, having previously worked as a groom for Whittingham and as an assistant trainer to Ben Cecil and Jeremy Noseda. Burke's first major success came with Falcon Flight, who finished third in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Turf. To his frustration, he has always had a small stable.

"People don't think you're good at training if you are training a horse they think anyone could be winning with," Burke said. "It takes a lot of time. I feel I can do it, but you need someone else to believe in you."

Pellegrino gave Burke his first Grade 1 win in the Hollywood Turf Cup last year, but the 6-year-old horse has failed to replicate that form in two starts this year, finishing eighth in the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita in March and sixth in the Jim Murray Memorial Handicap here last month.

In April, Pellegrino, 6, was supposed to start in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Hong Kong, but never traveled after developing an illness and missing a few days of training. The start in the Jim Murray was a substitute plan for Pellegrino, who finished 5 1/4 lengths behind the race's winner, Runaway Dancer.

"He will run better than last time," Burke said. "He ran a flat race. I don't know what caused it. Maybe it was a residual thing. He had a couple of bad days and that's why we didn't go to Hong Kong."

In the Whittingham, over 1 1/4 miles on turf, Pellegrino faces a tough field. The leading candidates are Red Fort, the runner-up in the Inglewood Handicap on April 30; Megahertz, the mare who has won 11 stakes; and Stanley Park, the winner of the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita in March. Other probable starters are Deputy Lad, Just Wonder, Sweet Return, and Vangelis.

Frankel trains Megahertz and Vangelis and said a decision on whether Megahertz will start will be made when entries are due on Thursday.

"Whoever beats Red Fort can win it," Burke said.

Saturday's program also includes the $75,000 Ack Ack Handicap over 7 1/2 furlongs, which is led by Congrats and Ender's Shadow.

Congrats finished second in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap and was fifth in the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 26. He has been assigned topweight of 121 pounds, three more than Ender's Shadow, My Cousin Matt, and Perfect Moon.

Ender's Shadow is winless in his last eight starts but ran a game second to Ace Blue in the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap over 1 1/16 miles here on May 14.

Valenzuela to return Saturday

Jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who has not ridden since being injured in a spill here on May 8, will return to riding on Saturday, according to his agent, Ron Ebanks.

Valenzuela, 42, received clearance from Dr. James Tibone on Monday to resume riding. Valenzuela injured his knee and suffered a concussion in a one-horse spill at Hollywood Park on May 8. The incident came a day after Valenzuela finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby on Coin Silver.

The leading rider of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, Valenzuela resumed exercising horses on Tuesday, Ebanks said.

Saturday, Valenzuela is scheduled to ride four mounts, including a starter for trainer Bobby Frankel in the Whittingham Handicap.

Al Arz thought to join Gold Cup field

The field for the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 9 is expected to include Al Arz, who finished second in his U.S. debut in an allowance race here last Saturday. A multiple stakes winner in Brazil, Al Arz was making his first start since February 2004.

In the allowance race over 1 1/16 miles, Al Arz rallied from fifth to finish four lengths behind Keep on Punching. Trainer Paulo Lobo considered the race to be a prep for the Gold Cup, which is run over 1 1/4 miles.

"It's hard to make up ground on this track," Lobo said. "If he trains well, we'll run in the Gold Cup."

Saturday's Ack Ack Handicap and the $250,000 Californian Stakes here on June 18 are leading preps for the Gold Cup. Supah Blitz, the winner of the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap at Lone Star Park last month, and Choctaw Nation, who was third in the Dubai World Cup in March, are also Gold Cup hopefuls.

Wednesday, Lobo's top sprinter, Pico Central, breezed a half-mile in 50.20 seconds. Unraced since finishing fourth in the $2 million Golden Shaheen in Dubai in March, Pico Central is being prepared for a summertime comeback.

* Apprentice jockey Freddy Fong, Jr., who has not ridden since May 27 after being involved in a one-horse spill, took off his three mounts on Wednesday. Fong received doctor's clearance to resume riding on Tuesday but had residual soreness in his neck and shoulder, according to his agent, Jim Pegram. Fong was expected to return on Thursday.