06/13/2002 12:00AM

Rock Opera could play spoiler


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Halfway through the $1 million-guaranteed pick six pool on races 5-10 Saturday at Hollywood Park, bettors face a choice. Santa Anita Derby runner-up Easy Grades will be favored to win race 8, a first-condition allowance at 1 1/16 miles on turf, but Rock Opera poses the main threat.

Rock Opera won his debut by 2 1/2 lengths, was hammered to 9-5 second time out, and finished third. Was trainer Cliff Sise disappointed?

"It would have taken a superstar to come back and win," he said. "To go from one maiden race to a mile, and get beat a length, I wasn't disappointed."

Nor should he have been. In fact, the race in which Rock Opera finished third has proven super-live. The winner, Regiment, returned to win a $200,000 stakes at Lone Star. The runner-up, Captain Squire, returned to win the Grade 3 Laz Barrera. Rock Opera also has stakes in his sights. Sise plans to run him in the July 24 Oceanside Stakes at Del Mar following Saturday's race.

Laffit Pincay Jr. rides Rock Opera, who is dropping from a two-other-than to a one-other-than.

Meawnhile, no starter is taking a steeper drop than Easy Grades.

Easy Grades finished 13th in the Kentucky Derby after training poorly over the Churchill Downs track. Since returning to California, Easy Grades has worked super at Santa Anita, and he proved in winter he handles turf, with a win and a second on grass.

The third choice in the race is Olmadavor, a son of A.P. Indy who is trying grass for the first time. "He should like it," said trainer Richard Mandella. "His dam [Corrazona] won the Grade 1 Beverly Hills here."

Speedy filly gets another chance

Continental Red will be Ian Jory's big gun Saturday in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham. But one year ago, if you had asked Jory to name the best horse in his barn, he would have pointed to the unraced 2-year-old filly Shezasummerbreeze. Unfortunately, the daughter of Summer Squall endured an impossible trip in her third-place debut and was sidelined. In race 7 on Saturday, she makes her long-awaited return.

"She's got speed," Jory said, adding that she worked two furlongs from the gate in 22 seconds Wednesday.

The blowout caps a steady work pattern for the filly, whose main rival is another maiden looking for better luck. Peaceful Place beat only one horse after a slow start from the rail on May 11. Her trainer, Nick Canani, is confident she will run better.

"She lost it in the paddock, she got nervous, but she'll be good [Saturday]," Canani said. "She's a nice filly."

Ceeband injured, retired

Ceeband, who has won three stakes - all sprints - in the past year, has been retired due to a sesamoid injury, trainer John Sadler said on Thursday.

The injury was detected following a workout on Tuesday, Sadler said. At the time, Ceeband was being prepared for a defense of his title in the $300,000 Triple Bend Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 6.

"It's not a life-threatening thing, but he won't run again," Sadler said.

A 5-year-old, Ceeband ends his career with 7 wins in 32 starts and earnings of $636,265. In his final start, he finished fifth in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap on May 4. Aside from the 2001 Triple Bend, Ceeband also won the California Sprint Championship at Bay Meadows and the California Cup Sprint at Oak Tree at Santa Anita.

Ceeband is owned by CRK Stables, which claimed him for $62,500 in March 2001.

Better part of valor?

Bonus Pay Day would be the longest shot in the Californian. That is, if he starts. In his last start, Bonus Pay Day was a runaway winner of a first-condition allowance. His trainer, Pete Eurton, recognizes the potential harm to the gelding's psyche if he is overmatched in the Californian.

"I don't want to break this horse's heart right now," Eurton said. "Four months ago, he was running for $16,000. We took the blinkers off and he has turned into quite a useful horse."

Useful, yes. Grade 2 class, no.

"He's really good now; he's tearing down the barn," Eurton said. "I know I'm the speed of the speed, but there's all that other speed outside me. I can always try those horses later."

Bonus Pay Day has won two straight, a Cal-bred allowance followed by an open allowance. He has won 7 of 28 overall. Eurton claimed him for $32,000 in March.

Nicobar finally does it

After three losses earlier this year, Nicobar won his first race in the United States in Wednesday's seventh race. The win came none too soon for owner Arnold Zetcher and trainer Ron McAnally.

"He finally came through with the race I expected," McAnally said.

A two-time group stakes winner in England and Italy last year, Nicobar had finished fourth in allowance races at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. The two-length victory against a strong field on Wednesday was particularly grafitying for McAnally and jockey Laffit Pincay Jr.

On May 16, Nicobar was beaten 2 3/4 lengths as the favorite, a frustrating result for Pincay, who said he was blocked behind Little Ghazi, who was ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye.

"Laffit came back shaking his head, saying Eddie wouldn't let him through," McAnally said. "We came back and beat Eddie with the same horse on Wednesday."

Nicobar ($14) finished 1 1/16 miles on turf in 1:41.19, outfinishing Little Ghazi by two lengths. Riviera, the even-money favorite, finished third, two lengths in front of Dr. Park, who was making his first start since September.

McAnally said Nicobar may start in the $150,000 American Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on turf on July 4.

* Kristin Mulhall, the daughter of Richard Mulhall, the racing manager for The Thoroughbred Corp., launched her training career this week. Kristin Mulhall, 19, had her first starter when Rafid was unplaced last Sunday. On Wednesday, she started Calda, who finished fifth in the sixth race.

In recent months, she has worked as an exercise rider for trainer John Shirreffs at Santa Anita.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen