11/18/2005 1:00AM

Taco Willy takes big step up

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ALBANY, Calif. - Trainer Gloria Buckridge couldn't be happier that Sunday's Golden Gate Fields feature, a one-mile first-level allowance race on the turf, was split into two divisions of 10 runners.

"We got the best half for him," she said of Taco Willy, a hard- knocker who has become one of northern California's most consistent turf runners. "I know there are some nice runners in there, but the race sets up for him with the speed in there."

from northern California.

The second half of the split runs as the eighth race. It includes two runners making their U.S. debuts, Dixieland Wells from Argentina and the Irish-bred Jaafi, whose shortest race in Great Britain was 1 1/4 miles.

Although Taco Willy is taking a big step up from the $6,250 starter allowance level, where he shared the points lead in a special three-race series at Bay Meadows, he was beaten less than one length in a troubled try in his lone race against allowance runners.

"We treat him like he's our Lost in the Fog," said Buckridge, who claimed Taco Willy, a 4-year-old gelding, for $6,250 on Jan 21.

"It's the kind of claim that makes you look smart," she said. "But he has exceeded my expectations."

Buckridge had seen Taco Willy on the fair circuit the previous summer and was impressed by his looks, but she noticed how nervous he always seemed.

"He didn't have the bloom to him," she said. "You could see spots where he'd really run, though. I was angry I didn't claim him when he broke his maiden for $8,000, and I almost claimed him for $12,500 in his next start, but my husband said to wait and that maybe he'd drop to $6,250."

Taco Willy has won $36,900 for Buckridge and partners Carol Anderson and John Lee since the claim.

After the claim, Buckridge discovered Taco Willy had ulcers, but she has cleared up that problem. Patient handling has made Taco Willy less nervous as well.

"He's a very big horse, and he's maturing," Buckridge said. "He's filled out. He runs better fresh, which will help him Sunday."

With the ulcers cleared up, Buckridge has discovered one other thing. Taco Willy loves to eat.

"As long as you don't show up with his dinner late, he's happy," she said. "But he eats five times a day and lets you know when he's ready."