02/24/2005 1:00AM

Truly a Judge's style no secret

Benoit & Associates
Truly a Judge works between races Thursday under Martin Pedroza.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Truly a Judge, the ex-claimer turned graded-stakes winner, has a clearly defined role in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 5. The 7-year-old gelding is best from the front and will try to seize the Big Cap from the start.

The tactics worked in the Native Diver and San Gabriel handicaps in December and January, but resulted in a second to Lundy's Liability in the San Antonio Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 6.

The front-running style will be fully tested in the Santa Anita Handicap, Truly a Judge's first start at 1 1/4 miles.

Thursday, Truly a Judge worked six furlongs between races in 1:11.32 under jockey Martin Pedroza. Jogging for five furlongs with a pony before breaking off, Truly a Judge worked alone and set early fractions of 23.75 and 47.28 seconds.

Trainer David Bernstein is not worried about the extended distance.

"He was running hard at the end of a mile and an eighth," Bernstein said. "He wasn't just plodding along. Hopefully, they'll have us to catch in the last furlong."

Earlier Thursday, the mare Island Fashion, another Big Cap hopeful, worked six furlongs in 1:11.20, the fastest of 11 recorded works at the distance. Last year, Island Fashion was second in the Santa Anita Handicap, losing by 1 1/4 lengths. She is the only mare under consideration for the Big Cap.

Trainer Marcelo Polanco said a fast workout was important.

"If I was going to go in the race, we needed something strong," he said. "I'm pretty happy with her."

Island Fashion has started once this year, finishing second in the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap for fillies and mares at seven furlongs.

A field of 11 is likely for the Big Cap. Aside from Island Fashion and Truly a Judge, the probable starters are Borrego, Congrats, Grand Reward, Imperialism, Lundy's Liability, Musique Toujours, Rock Hard Ten, Saint Liam, and Supah Blitz.

Saint Liam is the lone shipper. Trained in Florida by Richard Dutrow Jr., Saint Liam has won his last two starts - the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in November and the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 5.

Baffert trying to turn things around

Trainer Bob Baffert is not having the sort of Santa Anita meeting he envisioned at the start of the year.

Baffert has been unable to run many of his 3-year-old maidens because of wet weather. Roman Ruler, a top 3-year-old, has been plagued by a pesky quarter crack, and the stable has only two stakes victories at the meeting.

In a way, the season can be summarized by the final furlong of the Buena Vista Handicap last Monday. The Baffert-trained Resplendency was leading when jockey Patrick Valenzuela dropped his stick. Uraib caught Resplendency on the line and won by a nose.

"Poor little Bode was brought here just to have his picture taken in that race," Baffert said, referring to his infant son.

Baffert won his 14th race of the meeting with Pegasus Rose in Thursday's second race. That left Baffert in third place in the standings. He has no chance of catching leader Doug O'Neill, who has won 33 races.

Baffert won seven consecutive training titles at this meeting, from 1996-97 to 2002-03. Last year, he finished fifth with 27 wins, and is on pace for a similar total this year.

Despite some bad luck, there are signs that things are improving for the stable.

Sunday, Baffert starts Victory U. S. A. in the $100,000 Las Flores Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs. Wednesday, she worked a half-mile in 46.20 seconds between races.

Owned by Tom Van Meter, Victory U. S. A. has won 3 of 11 starts and $613,637. A two-time stakes winner who was third in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Victory U. S. A. has not started since finishing third in the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap at Del Mar last July.

"She hasn't been out in a while, but she's ready," Baffert said.

Baffert's 3-year-old picture also brightened on Thursday.

Roman Ruler, a two-time stakes winner last year, galloped on the training track. It marked his first serious exercise since resuming training following the diagnosis of the quarter crack that prevented a start in the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 13.

The $150,000 Gotham Stakes over a mile at Aqueduct on March 19 is a possibility for Roman Ruler's next start, Baffert said.

Fusaichi Rock Star, who won the San Vicente for Baffert, is a candidate for the Santa Catalina Stakes on March 5.

Passinetti, 9, is retired

Passinetti, the winner of the 2003 San Juan Capistrano, has been retired after a failed attempt to return from a suspensory injury, trainer Ben Cecil said.

Passinetti, a 9-year-old gelding, finished his career with 3 wins in 17 starts and earnings of $387,983. Passinetti was nearing a race and had worked seven furlongs when the decision was made to end his career.

"There was some heat in there," Cecil said. "We might turn him into a pony."

Passinetti is owned by Gary Tanaka.

Hoh Buzzard targets Santa Ana

Hoh Buzzard, the winner of the Brown Bess Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on Jan. 30, may return in the $150,000 Santa Ana Handicap on March 20, Cecil said. Cecil is also considering the $125,000 Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on March 19 for Hoh Buzzard. Both races are at 1 1/8 miles on turf.

A 5-year-old mare, Hoh Buzzard was scratched from the Buena Vista Handicap when the race was transferred from turf to dirt because of rain.