03/01/2007 1:00AM

Slight edge to Three Valleys in Kilroe

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was not long ago that a race in Southern California with nine horses was considered a deep field on which to wager.

This winter at Santa Anita it has simply been the norm. Since the meet began Dec. 26, the track has averaged 9 starters per race - up from 8.5 starters per race last winter and 7.9 starters per race during its 2004-2005 winter meeting. That 9-horse starter average exceeds the current meet averages at such prominent winter racing tracks as Aqueduct (8 starters), Fair Grounds (8.2), Oaklawn Park (8.8), and Gulfstream Park (8.9).

Santa Anita's increased volume of runners shows in more than its regular everyday racing. Fifty-four horses were entered for the track's five stakes that are a part of Saturday's 11-race Santa Anita Handicap Day card. Even the Santa Anita Handicap drew nine entrants, a decent-sized group considering the presence of $4omillion earner Lava Man

Of the five stakes, the Frank Kilroe Mile is among the most attractive from a betting standpoint. A Grade 1 grass race at a mile, it drew 12 evenly matched entries. Here's a look at that race, as well as two other stakes from across the country.

Frank Kilroe Mile

Last year, the top six finishers in the Kilroe finished within a length of one another, and once again this race appears highly competitive. Eight of the 12 entries - Silent Name, Milk It Mick, Charmo, Fast Parade, Three Valleys, After Market, Kip Deville, and Bayeux - are graded winners, and those that are not have often raced competitively in such contests.

With speedster Fast Parade stretching out from sprints and with Silent Name and Kip Deville sometimes known for running off early with their riders, a fast pace seems likely. Such a scenario would benefit Three Valleys, my choice.

He is at his best closing from five or so lengths off the pace when racing behind quick splits. It is in this fashion that he scored his biggest win, a nose victory in the Grade 2 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Mile in 2005.

Although unraced since finishing third in the Grade 1 Citation Handicap at Hollywood on Nov. 24, he should return primed for a top performance. He runs well with time between starts, and trainer Bobby Frankel has long illustrated his skill at bringing a fresh horse up to a big race.

That noted, Three Valleys, owned and bred by Juddmonte Farms, has little margin for error.

This is a race in which a number of horses typically have traffic problems and troubled trips - making it very similar to the Breeders' Cup Mile in that respect. In an example from last year, Cacique ran a close fourth for Frankel and Juddmonte, getting carried wide in a crowded field.

I don't view Three Valleys as being in the same class as Cacique, but he probably won't need to be to win. This field appears not quite as talented as last year's group. Granted, defending champion Milk It Mick is in the lineup, but he has not started since running sixth in the Shoemaker Mile last May at Hollywood Park.

Richter Scale Breeders' Cup

The unbeaten Half Ours, who was sold for $6.1 million in November at Keeneland to disperse a partnership, will likely to go off as a heavy favorite in Gulfstream Park's ninth race after whipping third-level allowance runners Feb. 4.

As well as he performed that afternoon, running a mile on a drying-out "good" track in 1:36.52, he did so with the benefit of an easy front-running trip. He was able to cruise effortlessly to the front, and had plenty left for the stretch run. I expect he will have to work much harder in the Richter Scale, facing some quality speed horses, such as De Francis Dash runner-up Diabolical.

I like Park Avenue Ball as a value-based alternative to Half Ours. Although a two-turn horse for much of the past two years, he has run well in long one-turn races like the seven-furlong Richter Scale. He won the Grade 2 Futurity at Belmont Park at a mile in 2004, and was also second in the Hutcheson and Withers around one turn in 2005.

A winner of $946,600, he could be overlooked in the betting.

Spring Fever

With only six fillies and mares entered for this 5 1/2-furlong sprint at Oaklawn Park, this race offers less value than the other two. The public's support is likely to fall mostly on two horses, Hot Storm and True Tails.

They have their strengths. Hot Storm, a multiple stakes winner with earnings of $824,536, is easily the most accomplished entrant in the field. And True Tails can run very quickly from time to time, as she did in winning an allowance prep for this race at Oaklawn on Feb. 18.

My selection is Miss Elsie, who has underachieved in two starts at the Oaklawn meet but who might be ready for a step forward in the third start of her form cycle. Her best race gives her a shot to outrun these. This is a filly that was beaten just two lengths when third behind Stormy Kiss and Malibu Mint in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss Stakes last summer at Saratoga.