05/14/2004 12:00AM

Pittsburgh Star vs. Fade to Blue in meet finale


PHOENIX - Sunday's aptly named Hasta La Vista Handicap, the annual closing-day feature at Turf Paradise, is at the unusual distance of 1 7/8 miles on the turf. Defending champ Pittsburgh Star and capable Southern California shipper Fade to Blue head a field of 11 in the final race of the season and the highlight of a 10-race program.

The Arizona racing scene shifts about an hour and a half north to Yavapai Downs in Prescott Valley. The meet there runs from May 29 through Sept. 7.

Pittsburgh Star was nothing short of dazzling here in the 2003 season. He won four of his last five starts at the meet, including a five-plus-length romp in the Hasta La Vista. Trained by Scott Russo, Pittsburgh Star did not resurface until this January, but when he did it was with a bang. He won the La Quinta at a mile on the dirt and appeared set for another big meet. But things have not gone all that well for him.

He followed the La Quinta with a third, fifth, and seventh - and didn't appear to be the same horse as he was last year. Last time, however, in the $40,000 Wildcat Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on the turf here, he ran second to the perennial local big horse, Bristolville. That might be a sign Pittsburgh Star is getting back to his best. Alberto Higuera rides at 118 pounds.

Fade to Blue ships in from Southern California and carries high weight of 124 pounds for Jeff Mullins, who was the leading trainer here for a few years before moving to Southern California.

The Richard Englander-owned Fade to Blue might be an 8-year-old, but he still has plenty of gas in the tank. He comes off a close fourth against some tough veterans at Santa Anita, and prior to that chased Gassan Royal in an optional claimer. The Bobby Frankel-trained Gassan Royal ran third in the Jim Murray at Hollywood Park last weekend behind two proven graded-stakes performers.

Fade to Blue has shown before he can ship and win, and while he never has gone this far, he won the last two times he raced at least 1 1/2 miles. He's to be ridden by Wilson Dieguez.

Other interesting entrants include Paladin Power, second in this race last year and most recently fourth in the Wildcat Handicap; Adjutant, a proven stayer coming off a second in the $36,000 Turf Distance Stakes here; and Sonia, a mare who has faced some of the best distaff stayers in Southern California.