10/26/2001 12:00AM

'Quest' carries Frankel flag


ARCADIA, Calif. - The racing world returns to normal Sunday at Santa Anita. Trainer Bobby Frankel, scheduled to start six horses in Breeders' Cup races Saturday at Belmont Park, has only one horse for the Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke Handicap at Santa Anita. One might be enough.

Northern Quest, runner-up to Frankel's Breeders' Cup Turf entrant Timboroa on Aug. 25 at Del Mar, returns as the 118-pound highweight in the $150,000 Burke at 1 1/2 miles on grass. Frankel has won the Burke four times, and will be favored to win another with a horse some bettors may think has a debt to settle.

Northern Quest was the 9-5 favorite in last year's Burke, and finished a dull fifth. Since then, his career has been marked by a series of perfunctory efforts. In fact, Northern Quest has won just one of his last nine, and his two most recent wins came over turf courses labelled softer than firm.

Still, Northern Quest has been facing tougher company than he meets Sunday, and he may be a better horse than he was last fall.

Chris McCarron rides Northern Quest, who has won seven races and $645,863 from 22 starts. Owned by 3 Plus U Stable, Northern Quest finished only a length behind Timboroa last out.

To win the Burke, Northern Quest must catch Kerrygold, who has a decided pace advantage in a race that came up short on speed.

Kerrygold had not been out in nearly four months when he finished fifth in the Henry P. Russell Handicap on Oct. 8. Assuming he needed the start and will improve Sunday, he could prove tough to catch under David Flores.

Kerrygold has won won 5 of 18, and has a history of improving second start back. Trained by Darrell Vienna, Kerrygold races coupled with Monsajem.

Cagney finished a close third in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap on Sept. 30, though handicappers must determine whether the one-length defeat was a legitimate effort by Cagney, or merely a function of the shape of the race. In the Hirsch, Penamacor raced to a 12-length lead, and hit a wall the final quarter-mile. His surrender allowed every late-runner to swoop, and the first five finishers were separated by less than 2 1/2 lengths.

Cagney, trained by Richard Mandella, has won 4 of 10. The remainder of the Burke field is Last Parade, Raypour, Fade to Blue, Negociateur, and Sign of Hope.