04/16/2004 12:00AM

Three turf veterans with a big shot


PHOENIX - It all looked as though it was coming together so nicely. Last summer, Runaway Dancer returned after a long layoff for trainer Dan Hendricks, and after a dull return run June 29 at Hollywood Park he promptly rattled off two straight optional claiming wins at Del Mar. He was wheeled back in the Grade 3 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Handicap and got his comeuppance, finishing sixth.

But Hendricks knew he was finally on the right path, the start of a journey that brings Runaway Dancer into Sunday's Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano Handicap a legitimate threat to take it all, and still pay something nice.

Even after that Bay Meadows dud, Runaway Dancer came right back and won the Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke, a 1 1/8-mile race at Santa Anita, at 38-1. A close fourth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup validated him as able to compete with the best at a marathon trip. He next tried the Grade 2 McKnight at Calder, but things didn't work out at all there.

So Hendricks regrouped. He gave Runaway Dancer some time off and the horse responded with a better-than-looked seventh in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo. Runaway Dancer rallied strongly from way back to be beaten slightly more than two lengths. After that, a solid effort in the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap at 12 furlongs helped confirm his quality. Now he heads into the 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano ready for his best.

"I don't have any excuses, but it was a totally different race than we've been running," Hendricks said of the San Luis Rey, in which Runaway Dancer finished fourth, beaten less than two lengths. "We've been running races in 1:15, 1:17 for three-quarters. The San Luis Rey went in 1:12 and we were closer to the pace than we've been. He still ran his race; he still closed. He just couldn't get up in time and it didn't work out. Now we're going a mile and three- quarters, [so] who knows? He's sharp, he's good right now, Mike Smith's riding him, and we're ready to roll."

Success in the San Juan Capistrano has as much to do with fitness as it does with talent. Runaway Dancer appears plenty fit now with two 12-furlong races under his belt. There have been classy horses before who have lost this race, and so-called not-as-classy horses who have thrived at the marathon distance in this closing-weekend fixture. Fitness and stamina are at a premium; so-called "class" has its place, but isn't as big a factor here.

Another horse with a big shot is Special Matter, trained by Rafael Becerra. In the March 20 San Luis Rey, he threw a shoe and ended up eighth.

Up to that point Special Matter had rattled off a string of good races, though his seventh-place performance in the 2003 San Juan Capistrano wasn't so hot.

There are some others to deal with here, too. All the Boys finished second in last year's San Juan Capistrano, and recent San Luis Rey one-three finishers Meteor Storm and Gene de Campeao are back. But Runaway Dancer and Special Matter are not only capable, they look ready to go, and the long distance appears to be right up their alley.

Those two are veterans, and in Sunday's co-featured San Simeon at about 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill it's another veteran who looks the goods. Glick has apparently found a home on the hillside turf course. He's now 2 for 3 on this course, the one loss being a good second in the Daytona Handicap.

"He's doing great," said trainer Jeff Mullins of Glick, a Kentucky-bred son of 1987 turf champion Theatrical. "He's a pretty cool customer around the barn. He's a good horse. He's got a lot of class, he's easy to deal with, and easy to train. He seems to like the downhill course and I think he'll run farther. He's won going a mile and an eighth as well."

Mullins is in a battle with Doug O'Neill for the training title so he figures to have Glick loaded for bear. Glick must deal with other proven hillside commodities such as Cayoke, Echo Eddie, and Summer Service, but he has looked like a new horse since moving to this course. Glick has earned successive Beyers of 103, 103, and 110. He finished ahead of Cayoke in the Daytona, and he set a course record of 1:11.26 on Jan. 19 and tied it on March 12.

Regardless of how you add it up, Runaway Dancer and Glick can help you close your Santa Anita meet with a smile. Of course, then we dive into Hollywood, and that's another matter entirely.