07/31/2003 11:00PM

San Diego: Only three rate a look


DEL MAR, Calif. - Although a mixed assortment of 11 horses was entered in the Grade 3 San Diego Handicap on Sunday at Del Mar, decisive handicappers will discover that the 1 1/16-mile race is far less confusing than it might appear.

Eliminate the sprinters. Draw a line through the claimers. Take a stand against horses who are either off form or outclassed, and the $250,000 San Diego soon boils down to three contenders - Joey Franco, Reba's Gold, and Gondolieri. Although likely favorite Joey Franco is stretching out to two turns, "it isn't exactly uncharted territory," said assistant trainer Scott Chaney.

Trained by Darrell Vienna, Joey Franco won three successive sprints at Hollywood Park, and is a two-turn stakes winner at Del Mar. The California-bred Joey Franco enters as a deserving favorite, though his advantage is minimal. Reba's Gold and Gondolieri are proven at the San Diego class and distance, and have aimed to the race for weeks. Although the San Diego is a prep for the meet's richest race, it may have little bearing on this year's Pacific Classic.

The connections of Joey Franco, Reba's Gold, and Gondolieri plan to skip the Pacific Classic and point for the Grade 2 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap later in the meet. Several borderline contenders in the San Diego could earn their way into the Pacific Classic. Those include Danthebluegrassman, winner of two straight in Kentucky following throat surgery. For Danthebluegrassman, the San Diego is indeed a bridge to the Pacific Classic.

"He's a different horse now, because he can breathe," trainer Bob Baffert said. But is Danthebluegrassman good enough? A winner of 6 of 15, his resume falls short for the typical class demands of a Grade 2. Danthebluegrassman's biggest win was a Grade 3 in northern California, and his neck allowance win last out was against an ordinary field. Runner-up X Country (8 for 34) is a useful allowance-caliber horse.

A victory by Danthebluegrassman, Western Pride, or Publication would be a surprise. Western Pride, a one-dimensional speedball, tailed off during the Hollywood Park meet but benefits from the shorter distance Sunday. As for Publication, he is a late-running sprinter whose connections hope he also has a finishing kick running long. It is a lot to expect.

The outsiders are Primerica and Bayou the Moon, former claimers Legendary Weave and Daunting, and sprinter Taste of Paradise. They are good horses, in tough. The picture is brighter for the top contenders. Joey Franco, owned by Jerry Frankel, will be racing two turns for the first time since transferring to Vienna. The distance issue is important. Said assistant Chaney: "If he can go two turns, there is a ton of money."

Pat Valenzuela rides Joey Franco, whose future could include the Del Mar Breeders' Cup on Sept. 1 and the $250,000 California Cup Classic on Nov. 8. He continues to train well, and has progressed since winning the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap on July 5. "He seems to improve race to race, I don't know what the bottom of him is," Chaney said. Joey Franco has won 7 of 14.

Reba's Gold has not raced since June 14, though the San Diego was always the plan. The 6-year-old Reba's Gold does best in summer, trainer Dan Hendricks said. "This is when he gets good - Del Mar, Pomona, and Oak Tree."

Reba's Gold, 8 for 31 with earnings of $614,922, could run himself into the big time. Hendricks and owner Alex Trebek will consider the Breeders' Cup Classic if Reba's Gold holds his form into fall.

"I wouldn't ship to Kentucky or Florida, but being as [the Breeders' Cup] is here this year, we'd have to consider it," Hendricks said. David Flores rides Reba's Gold, who figures for a ground-saving trip behind the speed.

Ron McAnally trains Gondolieri, who is at his best at the San Diego distance. "He's not really a mile and a quarter horse, he's more a mile to a mile and a sixteenth," McAnally said. A 7-for-11 import, Gondolieri was a Group 1 winner in Chile, and is Grade 2-placed in the U.S. Frank Alvarado rides.