06/26/2002 11:00PM

Sempai brings speed vs. foes' superior credentials

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PLEASANTON, Calif. - Speed has always been Sempai's game, and trainer Lonnie Arterburn has honed that speed to turn the 4-year-old gelding into one of northern California's top sprinters.

Arterburn will send out Sempai in Saturday's $50,000 Sam J. Whiting Handicap at six furlongs at the Alameda County Fair versus seven foes.

Sempai does not have stakes victories and placings, as do rivals Beyond Brilliant, Legendary Weave, Profound Secret, San Nicolas, and Today a Star. But none of them can match Sempai's record of five victories in six starts and earnings of $97,650 this year.

Sempai is 5 for 5 with Arterburn this year. His loss came in the Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint on May 11, when he finished fifth behind Mellow Fellow, Explicit, Swept Overboard, and Strike for Glory. He was trained by Robert Dempsey for that race.

Mellow Fellow is unbeaten this year. Swept Overboard won the Grade 1 Met Mile in his next start after the Bay Meadows Sprint, and Explicit won the Grade 2 True North in his next start after the Bay Meadows Sprint.

Sempai, who had been claimed for $40,000 after picking up his fourth straight victory of 2002, also won his start after the Bay Meadows Sprint, when owner Gene Johnson returned him to Arterburn's barn.

Johnson was one of Arterburn's earliest clients, and the two have run nice horses such as Distant Doll, Star Gem, Raising Havoc, and No Explanation.

"When I went to Delaware [in the spring of 2001], we kind of split up," Arterburn said. "When I came back, Gene was claiming some high-priced horses. I was a little envious I wasn't part of the deal, but it worked out all right."

Sempai is seeking his first stakes victory as he makes his third stakes appearance. He was third behind Her First Maki and Beyond Brilliant in the Sutter Stakes at Golden Gate Fields as a 3-year-old last year.

The Whiting always seems to produce a wide-open field, and Saturday's edition is no exception.

Arterburn knows that Sempai is in tough, but he also will be battling Fight for Silver for the lead. When Sempai gets the lead, he can be extremely game. All five of his victories this year have come wire to wire.

"He looks better now than when I had him this winter," said Arterburn, who is expecting a good race from Sempai. "Part of it is the good weather, but he's matured a little bit. He's stronger."

Arterburn is not concerned about running Sempai here for the first time.

"All those tracks are basically the same," he said. "You turn left at the corner. Maybe if a horse were running for the first time, it would make a difference, but he's a pro. He's been a pro for a long time.'

* Arterburn will be Saturday's guest at the Handicapping Workshop, co-sponsored by Daily Racing Form, from 11 a.m. until noon at the gazebo area in front of the grandstand. Ray Harris, the agent for Russell Baze, the nation's winningest rider, will be Sunday's guest.

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