06/16/2004 12:00AM

Stakes a tough second start

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There often is little to gain by running an inexperienced horse over his head, yet two weekend stakes at Hollywood Park will include second-time starters whose connections have chosen the path of most resistance.

Impressive debut winner Vencer will forsake a first-condition allowance and jump directly into a Grade 3 on Saturday in the Affirmed Handicap. The promising 2-year-old maiden Gentleman Count, who finished third in his debut, will try stakes company Sunday in the $75,000 Haggin Stakes for 2-year-olds.

Is this any way to develop a horse? The connections of both colts see sufficient upside while recognizing the difficulty.

"I know it's a big step," said Vencer's trainer, Rafael Becerra. "But he's good right now, and he's given us every sign he's a very good horse."

Vencer won his debut by four lengths and earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure, which equals the highest last-race figure among Affirmed nominees. At least nine are pointing for the 1 1/16-mile race, and Becerra hopes that Vencer's low weight assignment compensates for his inexperience. He scratched from a first-level allowance route Wednesday.

"He'll be 113 pounds, against straight 3-year-olds," Becerra said.

Sired by El Prado, Vencer is owned by Stan Fulton and was purchased for $850,000 as a 2-year-old. Becerra said the colt was "immature and heavy" last year, which explains his late debut on May 15.

Vencer is part of a large Affirmed field led by 121-pound highweight Twice as Bad and Snow Chief Stakes winner Cheiron, assigned 120 pounds. Others possible include Capitano, Wimplestiltskin, Boomzeeboom, O.K. Mikie, Hippocrates, Lindero, and Coldntight.

Gentleman Count needs better trip

In the 5 1/2-furlong Haggin Stakes on Sunday, Gentleman Count will race above his eligibility for the second time. That is not unusual with promising 2-year-olds, and Gentleman Count ran well enough in his debut to merit a second chance. A 15-1 outsider May 23 in the Willard Proctor, Gentleman's Count broke slowly, rushed forward, steadied into the turn, and lost his left front shoe. All that, and he still finished third.

"We knew he'd be a little green, and he was about 70 percent fit," trainer Nick Hines said. "Now, he's 90 percent fit, and his last work he came home the last quarter in 23.40."

Gentleman Count is owned by his breeder, Brian Carney, and may require only a better trip to win second time out. Hines entered Gentleman Count in a maiden turf race, but it did not fill. But why not try a maiden race on dirt instead of a stakes?

"At this point, these fields are coming up short," Hines said. "[Carney] owns the mare, and this colt's full brother. So if this horse were to jump up and win . . ."

It would be a home run for the owner and hardly a surprise to trip handicappers. The modest field is expected to include the Proctor winner, Chandtrue, as well as maiden winners Mr. Fondue, Fallfree, and Lotta Loot.

Pico Central's leg cut heals

Pico Central's right front leg has healed from a long cut he sustained while winning the Metropolitan Handicap on May 31, but it appears unlikely the nation's leading sprinter will run July 3 in the Grade 1, seven-furlong Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park. Trainer Paulo Lobo said Pico Central is only tack-walking and will not return to the track until next week.

"I'm trying to make the Triple Bend, but it's going to be hard. He missed two weeks," Lobo said.

It will be three weeks by the time Pico Central resumes training.

Pico Central earned 116 Beyer Figures winning the Met and Carter handicaps. Speightstown is the only other sprinter to earn a 116 this year. Lobo said the long-range plan for Pico Central includes the Breeders' Cup Sprint, a race that would require a steep supplemental fee from owner Gary Tanaka.

With Pico Central unlikely, and both Publication and McCann's Mojave showing no recent published workouts, the Triple Bend may come up weak. Marino Marini, second or third in four graded stakes in the United States, is aiming for the race, according to trainer Doug O'Neill.

No Gold Cup for Kela, Mitchell says

Leading trainer Mike Mitchell was just about ready to buck the odds and nominate Grade 3 winner Kela to the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 3. His rivals? None other than Southern Image and Even the Score. But when Mitchell was reminded that the Gold Cup was changed in 1997 from a handicap to a weight-for-age, the trainer quickly changed his mind.

"I'm not going to carry equal weights with those horses," Mitchell said. "Who wants to do that?"

Kela won the Grade 3 Texas Mile in April but finished fourth as the 6-5 favorite in the Lone Star Park Handicap on May 31. Mitchell said Kela disliked the hard track.

"He's always had [problem] feet, and he's not going to run over a surface like that," he said.

Mitchell's decision to pass the Gold Cup bolsters the opinion of those who want the race to be returned to a handicap. Since the conditions were changed to weight-for-age, the average field size has been just six betting interests.

Mitchell may have at least one runner on the Gold Cup card, however. Pocketfullofpesos will aim for the Grade 2 A Gleam for fillies and mares at seven furlongs. Pocketfullofpesos was unplaced in a $100,000 race in Texas, and Mitchell will try to start her twice more before she retires. The 4-year-old filly is racing while in foal to Skimming.

Sunset next for Continental Red

Continental Red, who finished fifth after failing to use his speed Saturday in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham, came out of the race in good shape and will run July 18 in the Grade 2 Sunset Handicap on closing day of the spring-summer meet at Hollywood Park. An 8-year-old gelding with earnings of more than $1.1 million from 62 starts, Continental Red's advantage was negated in the Whittingham.

"The plan was to be on the lead," trainer Ian Jory said. It did not happen. Continental Red and jockey Jon Court relinquished the lead to Sabiango, who got loose and led throughout.

After the 1 1/2-mile Sunset, Continental Red will be freshened until the fall Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita.

* Yessirgeneralsir, who won the Lone Star Handicap for trainer Dallas Keen, may ship to Hollywood for the Gold Cup, according to the track. He would be ridden by Omar Figueroa, who guided the Texas-bred to victory at Lone Star. Yessirgeneralsir has won three of eight.