12/06/2004 1:00AM

In race of inches, rail did the trick

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Benoit & Associates
Pellegrino (right), Gary Stevens up, stays committed to the rail on the final turn before scoring a head victory in Saturday's Hollywood Turf Cup.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In case there was someone still fuzzy on the concept, last Saturday's $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup proved once again that the shortest distance between two points is usually a circling band of white, industrial-strength plastic.

Riding to the tactics recommended by trainer Don Burke, Gary Stevens kept Gary Tanaka's Brazilian horse Pellegrino lashed to the inside rail like a tin bunny, fought through a couple of tough scrapes, and then broke for sweet daylight with a furlong left when most of the field was leaning right.

That did the trick, and Pellegrino had just enough momentum to withstand the two-headed Bobby Frankel attack of Megahertz, the pint-sized mare, and License to Run, another Brazilian, as well as the courageous Cal-bred filly Moscow Burning, who was given any number of reasons to quit, but refused.

Unfolding over the course of an entertaining 2:29 and change, featuring enough subplots to sink a soap opera, the Turf Cup brought to an end not only California's major grass racing season, but also the dreams of an Eclipse Award for Better Talk Now.

High praise, though, goes to trainer Graham Motion and the dead-game Bushwood Stable partnership, who rolled the dice and made the 3,000-mile journey with their hard-twisted gelding. They had everything to win and didn't, but guess what? That Breeders' Cup Turf trophy will never be taken away.

Even though Better Talk Now finished an inartistic sixth - pulling when he shouldn't have, going flat when it counted most - he still made an impact. He usually does. Warned by prior behaviors, the other riders in the field knew the Breeders' Cup champ had a habit of leaning in when he turned for home. He did it in winning the Sword Dancer at Saratoga, and he did it again in Texas.

You can imagine, then, the surprise and disappointment experienced by Jose Valdivia as the field straightened into the stretch. For 10 of the 12 furlongs, he had given Moscow Burning a perfect trip, and now all he had to do was slip quickly past Better Talk Now's nearly blind right side (he wears an extended blinker) and set sail for home.

So what happens? Better Talk Now veers out instead of in, forcing Moscow Burning to check and angle right, where she met the onrushing Megahertz. To their credit, Moscow Burning and Megahertz untangled and continued the chase, but the damage was done.

All the while, Stevens was enjoying the view. The hole created by Better Talk Now could have accommodated the Stevens family Hummer, let alone the racy Pellegrino, who sports a dark, lacquered coat and a meandering blaze.

"If you look at his form, when Alex [Solis] won on him, both times he had trouble," Stevens noted, referring to a pair of allowance wins at Hollywood during the summer meet. "Alex was forced down on the fence, and the horse came with a late run."

Stevens rode Pellegrino for the first time when they finished second in the Carleton F. Burke Handicap at Santa Anita in late October. By then, Don Burke (no relation) thought he had his number.

"Don told me that the longer I could wait, down on the rail, the better," Stevens went on. "And if I found trouble it didn't matter. It seems to halfway piss him off, then he gives you another run."

The theory was fully tested in the Turf Cup. Stevens was ready to move up on the rail around the final turn when Valdivia looked over his left shoulder, intent on seizing the same real estate.

"When the other jock turns around, and you can see the glare in their eye, you know you're [in trouble]," Stevens said. "He made sure he had the room, but there was no mistaking what he was going to do. I recognized it, too, because I'd given David Flores that same look about 50 yards earlier."

Upon viewing the replay, Burke gasped when he saw Stevens take up. The trainer should not have worried.

"It didn't bother my horse at all," Stevens said. "He just stayed real focused. Even though he dropped back three lengths off Valdivia's heels, I still had the feeling that I was a winner, as long as I could get somewhere to run."

There was another tight fit a furlong later, when Stevens had to tap the brakes behind a moving wall. Then pacesetter Balestrini tired, Better Talk Now leaned right, and Pellegrino was off to the races. The winning margin was a head, with License to Run another head back in third and Moscow Burning lapped in between.

A 2 1/2-minute horse race is a rare and welcome sight these days, especially when they come down to four horses in a cluster at the end. Jockeys get to call upon their full range of tactical horsemanship. Patrons are treated to the beauty of the galloping gait, early in the race, as fields flow directly in front of the stands. Tension is allowed to build, a second act gives way to a third, and then, suddenly, no more foreplay.

"You get to use your head," Stevens said. "It all unfolds in slow motion. I love riding races like that."

It also helps to have the right horse along for the ride.