06/29/2004 12:00AM

Royal Place much improved


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - In his recent races in Southern California, Royal Place has kept some pretty heady company. He just missed to 2003 Santa Anita Derby winner Buddy Gil in an allowance race at Santa Anita on April 16 and ran out of the money to one of the top handicap horses in North America, Southern Image, in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.

So Royal Place certainly won't be intimidated when he faces Lord Nelson, Yougottawanna, and Roscoe Pito in Thursday's Lieutenant Governors' at Hastings.

Unlike one of his main competitors, Yougottawanna, Royal Place has run at Hastings. He finished fifth behind Roscoe Pito in the B.C. Derby and was also fourth to Roscoe Pito in the Premiers'. Be warned though, Royal Place has put on weight and he looks considerably better than he did when he ran here last year.

His performance on the track is also vastly improved. In seven starts since leaving, Royal Place has won two allowance races, missed by a nose on the turf in the Bien Bien Stakes at Hollywood Park, and the 105 Beyer Speed Figure that he earned in his second-place finish to Buddy Gil is a career best. He's trained by Rafael Becerra and owned by K.K. Sangara, who thinks that Royal Place will run a big race Thursday.

"Last year when we brought him up here everything was too rushed," said Sangara. "Rafael only had him for five days after we claimed him at Del Mar. Then he had a long van ride up here. His races were better than they look on paper, though. He broke in the air both times and I think he would have won the Premiers' if he didn't get stopped at the top of the stretch."

Sangara usually runs his horses in realistic spots and it's not very often that you will see his horses at the 43-1 Royal Place was when he ran in the Santa Anita Handicap.

"We were running for third money," said Sangara. "He had won his allowance races so impressively and he was doing so well that we thought he might be able to hang on for third. Obviously, a mile and a quarter was too far for him to go and basically we just lost our minds for a little while."

Royal Place is realistically placed here but there is a lot of speed in the field and he could get caught up in what figures to be a heated battle up front. Sangara will fly in former Hastings leading rider Gerry Olguin from Woodbine to ride.

"I'm just hoping he'll leave the gate with the rest of them this time and then Gerry can make his decision on how he wants to ride him," said Sangara.

Socorro County has upset shot

Regal Red hasn't gotten out of a gallop in her three sprint wins this year and the only question left to answer is whether she will be able to carry her speed a distance of ground. The answer will come when she takes on seven other 3-year-old fillies in the $40,000 Liberation Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Thursday.

The horse who appears to have the best chance of beating Regal Red is Socorro County, an impressive winner of a $50,000 optional race at 1 1/16 miles June 13. According to her trainer, David Forster, Socorro County is coming up to the race in excellent shape.

Socorro County's great grand-dam is Procne. She produced a very nice horse named Flying Paster, a Grade 1 winner who earned more than $1 million. He would have earned a lot more if he hadn't been part of the same crop as Spectacular Bid.

Forster hopes he doesn't have a similar problem with Regal Red.

"I like my filly," he said. "Regal Red has been pretty tough sprinting but I know mine will go long. She's training very well so she should run a good race."

Maxwell's Burnaby chances cloudy

Trainer Dino Condilenios is confident that Maxwell will be a good horse going a distance but he's not sure how he will fare when he tries three turns for the first time in Thursday's $75,000 Burnaby Breeders' Cup at 1 1/16 miles.

Maxwell has won all three of his starts this year and picked up black type with a win in the Klondike on June 12.

"He's still green and sometimes it's hard for a horse that has as much natural speed as he does to rate when they go long for the first time. It took Lord Nelson a few races before he got it right," said Condilenios. "He should be fine by the time we get to the B.C. Derby but I'm not counting on anything Thursday."