05/09/2002 12:00AM

Sky Jack fine-tuned for LeRoy

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For two months, trainer Doug O'Neill has been beating himself up over the last-place finish by Sky Jack in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita.

"I think it was more trainer error in running a horse off a big effort off a long layoff," O'Neill said. "It was a boo-boo on my part."

Sky Jack was out of contention on the final turn of the Big Cap, his second start of 2002 following a 15-month absence caused by injury and illness.

Two months since the Big Cap, after a series of strong workouts, Sky Jack returns in Sunday's $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park.

O'Neill is convinced that the 6-year-old Sky Jack is far from a throwout. He cites two recent six-furlong workouts - in 1:11 on April 20 and 1:12.20 on April 27 - as evidence.

"They were goosebump-like workouts," O'Neill said. "In the second work, I put a horse seven or eight lengths in front of him and he caught him.

"We gave him the necessary time off and he's really benefited from it. I hope he'll show that same effort on Sunday."

Owned by breeders Rene and Margie Lambert, Sky Jack is best known for winning the California Cup Classic and Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap in the final two months of 2000.

Following the layoff, he returned to finish a game second in an allowance race on Feb. 9 before starting in the Big Cap.

Sky Jack is one of seven probables for the Mervyn LeRoy, run over 1 1/16 miles. The other expected starters are Agol Lack, Bay Head King, Bosque Redondo, Freedom Crest, Last Parade, and Reba's Gold.

The race lacks a nationally prominent handicap horse, but is a prep for the Californian Stakes on June 15 and the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 14.

In his 12-race career, Sky Jack is unbeaten in three starts on the main track at Hollywood Park, the most recent of which was the Native Diver.

"He's actually doing fantastic," O'Neill said. "He's running out of his own stall and he trains here. I think we have something of a home-track advantage."

Palmeiro emerging

By the end of the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, the handicap division may have a new member: Palmeiro, the winner of a $60,280 allowance race on Wednesday.

Making his second start since being gelded, Palmeiro ($7.40) stalked the front-running Hot Market to early stretch and drew off to win by two lengths, finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.59.

The beaten favorite was Total Impact, who was making his first start since finishing second to Essence of Dubai in the $2 million UAE Derby on March 23 in Dubai. Total Impact ran evenly throughout Wednesday's race and finished fourth, three lengths behind Palmeiro.

A winner of three of his 16 starts and $258,740 for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, the 4-year-old Palmeiro has yet to win a stakes, but was second in two important Kentucky Derby preps last year - the Santa Catalina Stakes and San Rafael Stakes. He won an allowance race at Del Mar last summer, but was winless in six subsequent starts before Wednesday's race, including an eighth in the Strub Stakes last February.

"When he ran bad in the Strub, I said, 'We need to geld him,' " trainer John Sadler said. "He was getting quite thick, like a linebacker."

The win on Wednesday left Sadler thinking that Palmeiro could show further improvement.

"For him, I think it's part of putting it all together, which he hadn't done in a race," Sadler said.

Palmeiro's win was welcome news for the Mosses. Earlier this week, they learned that Kudos, the winner of the Oaklawn Handicap on April 6, was going to be laid up because of a bone chip in an ankle. Surgery was scheduled for Thursday, and a return by the end of the year is likely, according to trainer Richard Mandella.

Hiatus for Ile de France

Ile de France, who finished sixth in the Kentucky Oaks on May 3, will have a brief rest, Mandella said. Third in the Santa Anita Oaks in March, Ile de France emerged from the Kentucky Oaks with a minor splint bone injury, Mandella said.

"It's flared up, but hopefully it won't amount to anything," Mandella said.

Jock uncertain for Menacing Dennis

Menacing Dennis worked five furlongs in 59.40 seconds on Thursday for the Preakness Stakes on May 18 but remains without a rider for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

"We have two or three people in mind and we're not settled on that," Bonde said.

Owned by Dennis Narlinger, Menacing Dennis will make his graded stakes debut in the Preakness Stakes and will be a longshot. Most recently, he finished second in the Snow Chief Stakes for California-breds over 1 1/8 miles on April 28.

"It's a large jump," Bonde admitted. "He continues to improve and we want to give him a shot."