04/03/2008 12:00AM

Tribesman faces new challenge


SAN MATEO, Calif. - The defending champion, two of the quickest horses in Northern California, and a runner nearing the million-dollar mark in earnings add up to an intriguing running of the $100,000 California Turf Sprint at five furlongs on the turf Saturday at Bay Meadows.

It's a race filled with questions.

If Tribesman can dominate the pace, as he did in five straight starts before he was beaten last out in the Grade 3 Bay Meadows Sprint, the race could be over early. But Tribesman has never run on turf.

Tribesman's five-race win streak included the Sausalito at Golden Gate Fields and Phoenix Gold Cup at Turf Paradise, where he beat Idiot Proof on Feb. 16. In the four-horse Bay Meadows Sprint on March 15, Tribesman dueled with Vicarino on the lead through a fast pace, and those two faded to last and second-to-last.

The Bay Meadows Sprint was won by Bonfante, who returns Saturday to try to defend his title in the California Turf Sprint. Also in the field are Areyoutalkintome, who would become a millionaire with a win or second-place finish, and Vaderator, one of the few horses fast enough to run with Tribesman early.

Trainer Roger Hansen expressed cautious optimism that Tribesman would enjoy the surface. He said he would likely scratch Tribesman if the course turns soft, but only light rain has fallen this week and the course is expected to be firm Saturday.

Even if Tribesman takes to turf, he may get an early challenge from Vaderator, who flew through opening fractions of 20.66 and 43.61 in his Feb. 21 comeback on the main track.

Bonfante took advantage of the pace duel between Tribesman and Vicarino to win the Bay Meadows Sprint. He won this race last year when he reeled in Vaderator late.

"I really think he runs better on turf, and he really likes this course," said Lewis Figone, the co-owner and breeder of 7-year-old Bonfante, who will be retired at the end of the year. "He's been a terrific horse. He always tries. Hopefully, if we don't get in trouble from the rail, he'll be there at the finish. He always gives his best."

Zoning In is another contender. He has more early speed than Bonfante, and could get a good trip just behind the leaders.

Zoning In has run twice this year, both times on the 6 1/2-furlong hillside turf course at Santa Anita. He won an optional claimer in January, and finished fifth in the Daytona Handicap on Feb. 17.