06/10/2001 12:00AM

Skimming best in Californian

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Last year, Skimming did not win a major stakes until Del Mar where he scored victories in the San Diego Handicap and Pacific Classic. This year, he is two months ahead of schedule.

On Sunday, Skimming won the $500,000 Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, becoming the favorite for the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 1. "I think he's a better horse this year than last year," trainer Bobby Frankel said. "Last year, he would have gotten beat in this race. He's a stronger horse and this year he's sounder."

Ridden by Garrett Gomez, the 5-year-old Skimming led throughout the Grade 2 Californian, running 1 1-8 miles in 1:48.12. As part of a Juddmonte Farms-owned entry with Aptitude, who finished third, Skimming paid $3.20. Breaking from post 5, Skimming set fractions of 23.61 seconds and 46.72, holding a half-length advantage over Irishesyesareflying and Blade Prospector, who was expected to mount an early challenge.

"I was surprised he made an easy lead," Frankel said. "When I saw 46 and change, I was pretty confident."

Turning for home, Skimming led by 1 1-2 lengths, but Gomez noticed that a challenger had emerged. Futural, who beat Skimming in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap on May 5, was within striking range.

"I took a peek turning for home and saw a horse on my hip, so I asked him," Gomez said. "I didn't know who it was. I thought it was my entrymate." Futural closed ground through the stretch, but lost by a length, ending a winning streak of three stakes.

"It's hard to win four in a row," said Craig Dollase, who trains Futural.

"There wasn't much pace in the race. I was happy with our performance." Aptitude closed from seventh to finish five lengths behind Skimming. He was followed by Jekyll and Hyde, City West, Red Eye, Irisheyesareflying and Blade Prospector.