10/01/2004 12:00AM

Star Over the Bay a proven gamer

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ARCADIA, Calif. - If anyone is going to beat Star Over the Bay in Sunday's $250,000 Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, they'd better roll right past him. As his opponents have found in their last two starts, if you get in a dogfight with him, you'll get mauled.

In both the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park and the Del Mar Handicap, Star Over the Bay bravely fought off his rivals after appearing beaten at midstretch. The circumstances change a bit Sunday, with Star Over the Bay carrying equal weight and moving to Santa Anita's turf course. But his will to win - largely absent the first four years he was on the track - makes him a formidable foe.

"I thought he was beat at the eighth pole both times," said Mike Mitchell, the trainer of Star Over the Bay. "The first time, I thought [Continuously] hung. But I changed my mind after watching the Del Mar Handicap. He just dug in and just wouldn't let anyone by."

won the Hirsch two years ago, but has not been the same this year since returning from a lengthy layoff. His speed, though, makes him an early factor, at the least.

"I can't see us getting an easy lead with The Tin Man in it," Mitchell said.

All seven starters in the race carry 124 pounds.

A 6-year-old gelding, Star Over the Bay won just 4 of his first 31 starts from ages 2 through 5. This year, he has won 4 times in 7 starts. He has improved sharply since being claimed in May by Mitchell for $80,000 for a partnership headed by Carl VanBurger and Landon Vaughn.

"He's one of the neatest horses," Mitchell said. "In his stall, he's quiet as a lamb. He's wonderful to jog. But as soon as you turn him around the right way, he's a gorilla to gallop."

finished second by a neck to Star Over the Bay in the Del Mar Handicap. A former middle-distance specialist, Sarafan, 7, has preferred longer distances at his advanced age.

The biggest threat to Star Over the Bay could come from Bayamo, who was second to stablemate Special Ring in the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar. Bayamo was a late addition to that race. Trainer Julio Canani had planned on going solo with Special Ring, but an unsatisfactory work by Special Ring two weeks before the Read gave Canani pause.

"I wasn't even going to run Bayamo in the Eddie Read," Canani said. "I had wanted Special Ring to work in 58 change, and he went 1:01 and change. I wanted to put the screws down, but we didn't bring the hammer. I had run Bayamo three times at Hollywood after a layoff, so after the Eddie Read, he got a break.

"I think his best distance is a mile and an eighth," he said of Bayamo. "But he should be okay in this race. The first quarter-mile is downhill."

Of the others, Vangelis was a fast-finishing fifth in the Arlington Million, Ballingarry was sixth in Belmont's Man o' War, and Puerto Banus is making his first start since March 20.

The field

Clement Hirsch
Purse: $250,000; 1 1/4 miles, turf; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1 The Tin ManM. Smith 10-1
2 Puerto Banus V. Espinoza 10-1
3 Ballingarry R. Douglas 10-1
4 Sarafan C. Nakatani 4-1
5 Star Over the Bay T. Baze 9-2
6 Bayamo D. Flores 7-5
7 Vangelis J. Valdivia 7-2

* All starters carry 124 pounds
* Odds by Art Gropper