07/01/2004 12:00AM

Pohave may never have better shot at Grade 1


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The appeal of handicapping 14 evenly matched runners will be so enticing Saturday at Hollywood Park that few will fret about the absence of the country's top sprinters from the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap. It would have been swell if Pico Central, Speightstown, and Ghostzapper had entered the seven-furlong, $300,000 race. But does it matter that they did not?

Not for bettors who appreciate large, competitive fields. And not for horsemen trying to win a Grade 1 race with a Grade 3 horse. Trainer Doug O'Neill admits the defections had plenty to do with 116-pound highweight Pohave entering.

"When [Speightstown] dropped out, it opened up an opportunity right here in our back yard," O'Neill said.

Grade 3 winners Pohave and Kela lead the Triple Bend, which also includes Grade 2 winner Taste of Paradise and Grade 3 winner Reba's Gold. Debonair Joe won a weak Grade 1 in late 2002 and has since lost 14 straight. Others are Hasty Kris, a longshot closer; Lifestyle, who bled last out; Ministers Wild Cat, flattered by soft trips in two recent allowance wins; and Revello, whose 110 Beyer is the highest last-start figure. Nose the Trade, Iron Halo, R. Baggio, Smile N Wildcat, and Rojo Toro complete the field.

Pohave and Kela began their careers for owner Aaron Jones and trainer Eduardo Inda. They later were trained by Larry Barrera before being sold, and have improved since - Pohave for O'Neill, and Kela for Mike Mitchell. Pohave enters off a third behind Speightstown; Kela finished fourth in a Lone Star route. Despite those losses, expectations will be high Saturday for both 6-year-olds.

The median Beyer for Triple Bend winners the past decade is 110. Only three in this year's field have matched the figure - Pohave, Kela, and Revello. Pohave is subbing for stablemate Marino Marini, who is sidelined with a respiratory ailment. By the time O'Neill entered Pohave, jockey Jon Court, who had ridden the horse in his last three races, had given the call to Ack Ack winner Taste of Paradise. Victor Espinoza rides Pohave, who will be forwardly placed in a race likely to unfold at a modest pace.

Pohave grabbed a quarter in his last workout. "That was a little concern, but it looks good," O'Neill said.

Pohave, owned by Kagele Brothers Inc., Ty Leatherman, and Mark Leib, has not won a sprint beyond six furlongs. If seven-eighths is too far for Pohave, then Kela can win the Triple Bend and give Mitchell the first Grade 1 of his training career.

Owner Jay Manoogian purchased Kela for $100,000 last summer, and laid him up. "The old horse was just tired," Mitchell said.

Kela returned in March with a fourth in a Grade 2 sprint, bombed in a Grade 3 route, then ran away with the Grade 3 Texas Mile at Lone Star Park, earning a 114 Beyer. In his last start, Kela disliked the hard track and finished fourth in the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap.

Mitchell committed Kela to the Triple Bend after a blazing five-furlong workout in 57.80 seconds on June 23. "It was a great work, and he came off the track playing," Mitchell said.

Though he drew the rail, Mitchell believes Kela can find a good trip under Pat Valenzuela.

"I think Pat will fit him really good," Mitchell said. "At seven-eighths, you have to get him into the race."