04/15/2003 11:00PM

Shirreffs sees Van Rouge improving

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Van Rouge appeared to be on the verge of an important campaign last spring when he won the Ascot Handicap at Bay Meadows in his stakes debut.

An injury following that race kept him sidelined until last month, but it has not changed the opinion that owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs have of the 4-year-old colt.

On Friday, Van Rouge makes his third start of the year when he faces 11 opponents in a $61,000 optional claimer over a mile on turf.

Shirreffs expects a strong performance despite third-place finishes in two races in March.

"There's no doubt he'll be better," he said. "He ran in two tough races. Both times were very fast. We like him quite a bit."

On March 27, Van Rouge was sent off as the even-money favorite in an optional claimer over a mile on turf. Ridden by Gary Stevens that day, Van Rouge led passing the eighth pole, but was beaten 2 1/4 lengths, finishing behind Golden Dragon and Marshall Rooster.

"The last time he ran I don't think he was 100 percent," Shirreffs said. "He got to the lead, but he didn't have the quickness to win."

Friday's optional claimer is run as the eighth race on a nine-race program that begins at 3 p.m.

The field includes Easy Grades, who was 13th in the 2002 Kentucky Derby; Puerto Banus and Meteor Storm, the winners of allowance races in March; Stardan, who was group stakes-placed in France; and Marshall Rooster, who has run well at a mile in recent starts.

Van Rouge will be well supported, but Meteor Storm is the likely favorite. Stakes-placed in France last year, Meteor Storm won his U.S. debut in a one-mile allowance race on turf on March 9.

Owned by a partnership and trained by Wally Dollase, Meteor Storm is drawn in post 10, which could hurt his chances.

Another leading contender, Marshall Rooster, will start from post 11. Trained by Craig Dollase, Marshall Rooster won an allowance race by four lengths over a mile on turf on Feb. 16.

Stevens will ride Puerto Banus, who is making his turf debut. Trained by Bob Baffert, Puerto Banus won an allowance race by five lengths over 1 1/16 miles on March 2.

Van Rouge starts from post 7 and will be ridden by Chuck Lopez, who recently relocated from the East. The post should not hurt Van Rouge, who races on the lead or close to the pace.