10/31/2002 12:00AM

Top of Our Game to try the hill again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Top of Our Game can either salvage the California Cup card for trainer Carla Gaines and owner John Harris, or add icing to the cake when she runs Saturday in race 7, the $150,000 Cal Cup Distaff.

While the main prize for Harris awaits in the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic (race 8) with the Craig Lewis-trained Hot Market, Gaines and Harris combine for three live bullets earlier on the Cal Cup card. Super High will be favored in the $150,000 Matron (race 2), Unlimited Value is a legitimate contender in the $150,000 Sprint (race 6), and Top of Our Game may be the one to beat in the Distaff.

Seventeen fillies and mares entered the Distaff at 6 1/2 furlongs on turf. Fourteen will start. Beyond quantity (only the Mile has as many starters), the Distaff offers handicappers the card's most challenging race. While some borderline contenders enter with attributes related to turf, the course may compromise two favorites. The 120-pound highweight Channing Way is 10 for 14 but unproven on turf; second highweight Warren's Whistle has earned more than any starter ($597,058 from 40 starts), but is 0 for 10 on grass.

The vulnerability of the chalk lends credibility to the fringe entrants. Lil Sister Stich is an honest claimer who is 2 for 2 on the Santa Anita turf and

5 for 10 overall on grass; Fancee Bargain was off the board in her only grass start, but the graded stakes-placed mare recently has worked super over the course; Jenna's Joy is quick, and familiar with grass; Top of Our Game has earned most of her $348,039 total on grass, though the 5-year-old mare has done most of her running around two turns.

Gaines has trained Top of Our Game, a 6-for-21 stakes winner, throughout her career and believes she will improve in this, her second try sprinting over the downhill course.

When Top of Our Game ran in the Grade 3 Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap on Oct. 12, the intention was to try to gain a graded-stakes placing and enhance her future value as a broodmare. It might have worked except for her unfamiliarity with the course.

"It was the first time she's ever sprinted, and it's a tricky course for handling a sprint anyway," Gaines said.

"When she hit the dirt, she jumped and lost some ground," Gaines explained, adding that jockey Mike Smith "had to sit down in the saddle. She was green, then she got behind a wall of horses. We're hoping for a less-green run this time." In fact, Top of Our Game was beaten only 3 1/2 lengths in the Maddy. Assuming she improves second try down the hill, the 5-year-old mare, by Steinlen, should be right there.

"She's a good miler, and milers usually run well on the hill. She's training very well," Gaines said. Top of Our Game is 2 for 5 on dirt, but with stablemate Super High already the one to beat in the Matron, Gaines and Harris opted to separate the barnmates, and try Top of Our Game on the hill a second time.

While the abundance of pace in the Distaff favors late-runner Top of Our Game, she must overcome a course profile that has benefited speed. Five of the 10 downhill turf sprints this meet were won by the pacesetter, seven of 10 were won by a horse within 1 1/2 lengths of the lead after the opening quarter-mile, and only 3 of 10 were won from behind.

The profile favors Channing Way, a 4-year-old Smokester filly who has won 10 races and $306,450 from 14 starts. The pace-pressing Channing Way has won her last four starts; her only previous turf start (a last-place finish), followed a 10-month layoff and may not be an accurate representation of her turf ability.

Front-runners Lil Sister Stich, Jenna's Joy, and Grant Marty a Wish insure Channing Way will have plenty of company on the front end.