04/14/2005 12:00AM

Ready for the distance

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Stanley Park was a furlong from winning the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap last month when trainer John Shirreffs began to relax.

In his third race after a 15-month layoff, Stanley Park was performing brilliantly, rallying from eighth to win the San Luis Rey at 1 1/2 miles on turf.

"He made a very long sustained run," Shirreffs said. "At the quarter pole, he looked so good. He didn't look like he was struggling. He still had a lot left."

Shirreffs's impressions are worth recalling as returns in Saturday's $250,000 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap at about 1 3/4 miles on turf at Santa Anita.

The Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano is a rare test of stamina and the only time that many starters will tackle the distance. The race begins at the top of the hillside course and includes one full circuit of the turf course.

Stanley Park is the 118-pound starting highweight and probable favorite in a field of nine. Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Stanley Park, 5, is the only entrant to have won a graded stakes in the United States in the past year. , second in an allowance race at 1 1/8 miles on March 26, won a Group 2 race at about a mile on turf in Argentina last year.

Three entrants have run in claiming races in the last year, a sign of the San Juan's drop in status in recent years.

Aside from Stanley Park, top contenders include , who is trained by Bobby Frankel, and All the Boys, a pacesetter who was second in the 2003 San Juan Capistrano.

Jose Valdivia Jr. will ride Stanley Park, the third different rider for the horse in as many races.

Mike Smith was aboard for a third-place finish in an allowance race March 9. Gary Stevens rode Stanley Park for the first time in the San Luis Rey Handicap on March 26. Both are now at Keeneland.

The San Luis Rey marked Stanley Park's second career stakes win; he won the Grade 3 Bay Meadows Handicap at 1 1/8 miles in November 2003.

After finishing a troubled eighth in the 2003 Hollywood Derby, Stanley Park was off for 15 months.

"He had a quarter crack in a hind foot and a chip there," Shirreffs said. "We didn't know about the chip until we X-rayed it. We couldn't take it out. We had to let nature take care of it."

As Stanley Park returned, Shirreffs said he noticed a change.

"He trains better as an older horse than he did as a younger horse," Shirreffs said. "He had a tendency to get real nervous on the main track. Now, he's a little more mature and stronger physically."