02/25/2003 1:00AM

Speedballs set pair up for exacta

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Ten starts into his career, Popular has established himself as a fast horse with severe distance limitations. Similarly, Good Cop Bad Cop does not hold back when he runs on dirt. Even if he could, he wouldn't. Not from post 10 in a one-mile dirt race that is the race 7 feature Thursday at Santa Anita.

Ten horses entered the two-other-than optional $62,500 claimer, which is virtually guaranteed to unfold at a fast pace. Along with speedballs Popular and Good Cop Bad Cop, a bevy of pressers entered. They include Shah Jehan, sprinter Primerica, and Proceed With Care. It's a lot of heat for one race, and reason to expect the $61,000 race will be won from behind.

Thankfully, two closers fit the description - class-dropper Easy Grades and comebacker Thunder Blitz.

The running styles of both horses are complemented by the likely fast pace, both are trained by top stables, and both fit on class. Barring the unexpected, Easy Grades and Thunder Blitz may make for the most predictable exacta of the week.

It is a testament to their durability that both Easy Grades and Thunder Blitz survived the severity of the Kentucky Derby. Easy Grades finished 13th in the 2002 Derby, and Thunder Blitz was fourth in the 2001 Derby. While their careers have hardly blossomed since, the Thursday allowance is an appropriate spot. It certainly is an easier spot for Easy Grades than his last start.

Trained by Ted H. West, Easy Grades returned from throat surgery Jan. 4 and finished a creditable second in a two-other-than allowance. But in his next start, the Grade 2 Strub Stakes, Easy Grades was no match for Medaglia d'Oro and finished fourth, beaten more than 14 lengths. Easy Grades, 2 for 12 lifetime, returns to the allowance ranks Thursday while adding blinkers. Julie Krone rides Easy Grades, whose recency may give him a slight advantage over his main rival.

Thunder Blitz also adds blinkers in his first start for Bobby Frankel. The 2-for-15 gray has not raced since last June at Belmont, but his workout pattern indicates he is fit and ready. Previously trained by Joe Orseno, Thunder Blitz won the Grade 3 Flamingo Stakes in 2001.

Popular, trained by Bob Baffert, exits a third-place finish in a fast-paced allowance Feb. 1. Good Cop Bad Cop starts for the first time since John Sadler claimed him for $50,000 Jan. 31.

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