12/26/2008 12:00AM

Three make San Gabriel cut

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - How can you tell which horses figure to be contenders in a graded stakes race? One way is to search through the past performances of the field to see which entrants have recently won graded or group stakes races.

But if you're looking through the past performances for Sunday's Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap, a 1o1/8-mile turf race at Santa Anita, you might want to consider organizing a posse, because recent graded and group stakes wins aren't easy to find.

It turns out that only two of the nine horses in the race own a single graded or group stakes victory this year. And neither of them was earned in the last few months. Proudinsky won the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds by one length back in March. Ferneley won the Group 3 Amethyst Stakes at Leopardstown in Ireland in May. So does that mean we can ignore the rest of the field and box Proudinsky and Ferneley in the exacta?

Probably not. Proudinsky has lost six straight races since that victory, and finished fourth or worse in five of them. If he offers only modest odds, as he usually does, it will be wise to take a long look at the rest of the field to see if we can find a few good alternatives.

Ferneley has lost five of six starts since that Group 3 win, including a sixth-place finish in a field of eight in the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile and a seventh-place finish in a field of nine in the Grade 1 Citation at Hollywood, so I will go with other, more appealing options.

Since graded and group stakes wins are in short supply in this field, why not give these horses a little more leeway and see how many of them have managed to finish within two lengths of the winner in a graded or group stakes race this year?

Using that new guideline there are four horses besides Proudinsky and Ferneley who qualify. It is particularly intriguing to note that they all met that qualification in their most recent race. And two of them met that standard twice this year.

Porfido finished second, three-quarters of a length behind the winner here in the Grade 2 San Luis Rey in March. And he finished third, 1o1/2 lengths behind the winner in the Grade 2 Sunset at Hollywood in July. While he rates as a contender, the catch with Porfido is that we would be using one Bobby Frankel trainee who tends to be somewhat overbet to try to beat Proudinsky, another member of the Frankel barn who might be a bigger underlay. I will look elsewhere for betting value.

Medici Code ran well last year. He won the Grade 2 La Jolla and the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby, and finished second, just a half-length behind Daytona, in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. He made no impact in the Santa Anita Derby in his first start this year, then was rested from March 1 to Nov. 1, when he finished a contending third in an allowance prep in his return. That allowance race set him up for an improved performance at high odds on the jump into a Grade 1 race. Medici Code finished fifth as a 39-1 longshot in the Citation. He finished a nose behind Proudinsky, who was a head behind Becrux and two lengths behind the winner. Medici Code will be a major player if he continues to move forward in the third race of his form cycle.

Obrigado looks promising. He finished third, beaten by 1 1/4 lengths in the Grade 2 San Marcos back in January. He regressed in one start vs. Grade 2's, then headed for the shelf. He was a contending third in an allowance race in his comeback, then ran a big race when he finished second, beaten by only a half-length, as a 22-1 outsider in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup. He likes this turf course, with a win, a second, and a pair of third-place finishes from five local starts. The class drop will make him hard to handle.

Becrux was on the sidelines for three months. He beat allowance company in his return, then rallied to finish third, just 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner, as a 23-1 longshot in the Grade 1 Citation at Hollywood. He edged Proudinsky by a head in that race, and was impressive visually while finishing strongly. He has been training well since that start, and can win this race on the class drop if he continues to improve in the third race of his form cycle.

I will give Becrux the narrow edge, and use him, Obrigado, and Medici Code in the exotics.