03/26/2006 1:00AM

Silver Cup wins Santa Ana for third straight

Silver Cup (right) wins her third straight stakes race at the meet with a half-length victory over favored Argentina in the Santa Ana Handicap on Sunday at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Patrick Biancone began Sunday in Kentucky. Victor Espinoza, 24 hours earlier, was in Dubai. By the end of the day Sunday, they were in the winner's circle at Santa Anita, greeting the filly Silver Cup, who won her third straight stakes race at the meet with a half-length victory over favored Argentina in the Grade 2, $150,000 .

Silver Cup was caught three paths wide while stalking the early pace, surged to the front at the top of the stretch, then bravely held off a thicket of challengers. Argentina, making her first start in the country, nosed out Beautyandthebeast for third after breaking slowly. Sharp Lisa was another head back in fourth. The first seven finishers in the eight-horse field were separated by 2 1/2 lengths.

There was no pace early on, with Sharp Lisa leading through fractions of 24.30 seconds for the opening quarter and 49.08 seconds for a half-mile. Silver Cup was wide, but closer to the pace than Argentina, who trailed after her tardy start. Silver Cup flew home, with her final three furlongs in 35 seconds, to cover 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in 1:48.13.

Silver Cup was 16-1 when she captured the San Gorgonio Handicap on Jan. 8, and 7-1 when she took the Buena Vista Handicap on Feb. 20. The presence of the highly regarded Argentina caused Silver Cup ($7.60) to be only the second choice in the Santa Ana. Silver Cup, owned by Martin Schwartz, became the first horse to sweep those three races.

"This is the cherry on top of the cake," Biancone said. "It is very difficult to win three in a row. She will probably get a break now. The plan was to run her in these races, then give her a break."

Biancone had been at Turfway Park on Saturday, then flew home Sunday morning. He said Silver Cup was his final starter of the meet; he is making his annual spring pilgrimage to Keeneland. Espinoza rode in Dubai on Saturday, then flew home through New York, landing in Los Angeles only 90 minutes before post time for the Santa Ana. He arrived at Santa Anita with only minutes to spare before the call for rider's up.

"I think I was more tired than her," Espinoza said. "I barely made it. I got here 15 minutes before I had to check in. I'm glad I made it."

Silver Cup, 4, is a daughter of Almutawakel. She has now won 8 times in 13 starts; she is 3 for 6 for Biancone, who took over her training last summer after she was imported from Italy.