10/01/2001 11:00PM

Take back-class over inform at Santa Anita

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is a handicapping question to which there is no definitive answer - back class or current form? The issue is relevant Thursday at Santa Anita, as stakes winner Jeweled Pirate returns from an eight-month layoff against racing-fit Nashoba.

Nine fillies and mares entered the seventh-race feature, a three-other-than allowance at a mile on grass. Jeweled Pirate has not raced since upsetting Lazy Slusan Feb. 3 in the Pro Or Con Handicap for California-breds, but her workouts indicate trainer Ray Bell has her cranked.

"[Jockey] Chris [McCarron] worked her Friday, and after the work said, 'I hope that brought a smile to your face, because it sure brought a smile to mine,' " Bell said. "She's been working beautifully. She's as fit as I can get her on works."

The 1:13.60 work was the latest in a string for the 4-year-old Jeweled Pirate, who is using the allowance as a prep for the California Cup. Owned by Robert Irvin, she won 4 of 9 races, and 3 of her last 4, before Bell concluded she had done enough for one campaign.

"We gave her some time off basically because she hadn't had any," Bell said, adding that "we wanted to get her ready for the Cal Cup. I almost had her ready to run at Del Mar, but we ran out of time."

Based on class, Jeweled Pirate has no peer in Thursday's race. That's because she defeated a stellar field her last start. Runner-up Lazy Slusan subsequently won two Grade 1's; third-place finisher Mimi's Cafe has won three stakes this year; fourth-place finisher Kinky Kinky won her next start; and seventh-place finisher Rare Charmer won a Grade 2 next out.

Jeweled Pirate's main rival Thursday is the gray drawn to her outside. Nashoba has overcome respiratory problems and bleeding problems to win all four starts - she was disqualified once - in this country. On Thursday, she must contend with an entirely different issue - girth disease.

The skin affliction (her back is covered with unsightly bumps) typically does not compromise performance, though trainer Carla Gaines is uncertain.

"We're concerned about it because you figure she is trying to resist something," Gaines said. "In a perfect world, you'd wait until she was over this, but these races don't come up very often."

Nashoba won her last start, a two-other-than allowance in which she benefited from a slow pace. Her rivals include Sissi Son, victim of an impossible trip last time; sprinter Queen of Wilshire; Notable Career, a Grade 1 winner who added front wraps and finished last in her first start back; and comebacker Vencera.