05/26/2004 11:00PM

Three foes meet for fifth time

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Saturday's $55,000-added Santa Clara Handicap comes down to a three-way battle among A B Noodle, Hippogator, and Hooked on Niners, who will be meeting for the fourth straight time and the fifth time this year in the one-mile race for fillies and mares. There are three others in the race.

Hooked on Niners was second, A B Noodle third, and Hippogator fifth in the Grade 3 Brown Bess at Golden Gate Fields on Jan. 31.

They met again on March 11 at Saturday's distance in a Golden Gate Fields allowance race. A B Noodle was a wire-to-wire winner, with Hooked on Niners second and Hippogator fifth.

Hippogator, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, turned the tables with a wire-to-wire victory in the Miss America at 1 1/16 miles on the turf here on April 10. A B Noodle was third, Hooked on Niners fourth.

A B Noodle then won the Grade 3 Yerba Buena Breeders' Cup Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the turf in wire-to-wire fashion on May 8. Hooked on Niners was third, Hippogator fifth.

Judging from their past three starts, it appears the winner of the pace battle may also be the winner of the race.

A B Noodle got the jump on Hippogator and jockey Roberto Gonzalez in the Yerba Buena. "I don't know why he took back," Hollendorfer said.

Hollendorfer has replaced Gonzalez with Ron Warren Jr. for Saturday's race.

Gonzalez winds up on Pheiffer, a multiple sprint stakes winner normally ridden by Warren. Pheiffer figures to be a pace factor.

Hollendorfer said he wouldn't plan a strategy until he saw the full field and the draw, which is what A B Noodle's trainer, Chuck Jenda, will also do.

"You want to see what the post draw is, but then it's who breaks more alertly," Jenda said.

Hippogator may have won round one, drawing post 5 outside of A B Noodle in post 3.

If A B Noodle has an advantage, it may be because jockey Joe Castro is more familiar with her than Warren is with Hippogator. Castro has ridden A B Noodle in her past three starts. Warren's lone ride aboard Hippogator came in a sprint last year in Pleasanton.

"It means a lot with her," Castro said. "Every race, I learn a little more. With a lot of higher-wound fillies, you have to know what they'll accept or not."

The distance favors A B Noodle, the surface Hippogator, a three-way pace battle Hooked on Niners. A B Noodle is the one to beat, but as the probable favorite, perhaps not the one to bet.