05/10/2006 11:00PM

Surf Cat stretches out

Surf Cat, a two-time winner in sprint stakes this year, will race 1 1/16 miles in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Surf Cat could make the California handicap division into his own personal playground in coming months.

In two sprint stakes at Santa Anita earlier this year, Surf Cat dominated his rivals with easy wins.

will try a longer distance, 1 1/16 miles, in Saturday's $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park, a race that could lead to a start in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 8. Judging from his recent form, Surf Cat could eventually give horses such as Lava Man a true test in major stakes.

"It should be fun," said Alex Solis, who was aboard Surf Cat for the sprint wins and rides again Saturday.

Trained by Bruce Headley for his wife, Aase, and Marsha Naify, Surf Cat will be attempting to win his fourth consecutive race in the Mervyn Leroy. He won an allowance race at 1 1/16 miles last October to start the current streak. Last July, Surf Cat won the Grade 2 Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. His only loss in his last five races was a sixth in the Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 21, a race in which he fought for the lead before fading in the stretch.

In the San Carlos and Potrero Grande handicaps earlier this year, Surf Cat dropped to the back of the field and launched a quick rally that put him in front in the final furlong. In the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy, Surf Cat is likely to be closer to the front.

"I think he's a lot stronger," Solis said. "I think he's a better horse this year. I'm very confident. I was excited last year and I'm more so this year."

Surf Cat, the 121-pound starting highweight, drew the rail in the Mervyn LeRoy, which has six entrants. Spellbinder, who won the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita in February, makes his first start since finishing seventh in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 4.

trainer, Richard Mandella, is using the LeRoy as a prep for the Hollywood Gold Cup.

, Gallardo, Keep on Punching, and Timias are the other starters. Dixie Meister, a stakes winner in Texas last year, finished second in the Santana Mile at Santa Anita on March 12.

Keep on Punching may set the pace, though Spellbinder has been effective when racing near the lead in recent starts.

Los Angeles: Evenly matched group

The absence of the multiple stakes winner Bordonaro has made the $100,000 a weaker but more competitive race.

Of the eight entrants, three have won stakes this year - Pure as Gold in the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap on turf at Santa Anita, Siren Lure in the Daytona Handicap on the main track at Santa Anita, and Prorunner in the G Malleah Stakes at Turf Paradise last month.

Siren Lure is the likely favorite. The mount of Solis, Siren Lure had a three-race winning streak end with a third-place finish behind Pure as Gold in the San Simeon on April 22.

Trainer Doug O'Neill has two starters - Areyoutalkintome, who is proven on the main track, and Pure as Gold, who is better on turf.

Pure as Gold has never won a stakes on the main track, but did win three overnight races on the surface. He has won three consecutive races, all on turf.

Areyoutalkintome has run a remarkable 12 times since finishing second in the 2005 Los Angeles Handicap last May. He was second in the Tiznow Stakes at 7 1/2 furlongs for statebreds here on April 30, losing by a head to Lucky J.H. after a prolonged duel through the stretch.

O'Neill envisions Areyoutalkintome being near the front under jockey Patrick Valenzuela.

"He's just a warrior," O'Neill said. "As he's gotten older, he's gotten a little on the lazy side. I think he got a lot out of that race the other day. Shortening up, he should move forward. You got to stay busy with him. With Pat riding him, he should be near the pace."

Areyoutalkintome, 5, has won three stakes, the most recent of which was the Grade 3 El Conejo Handicap at Santa Anita in January 2005.