04/30/2003 11:00PM

On turf, Gondolieri best


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park, might be called a prep for the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile on May 26. But it is not. In the seven years since purse increases made the $350,000 Shoemaker the meet's premier turf race, only one Inglewood winner (Fastness in 1996) also won the Shoemaker.

Instead, the Inglewood is a cozy little turf stakes usually lost in Derby Day hoopla. It will be this year, also. A modest cast led by allowance horse Blue Steller and consistent Chilean front-runner Gondolieri entered the 1 1/16-mile race. Blue Steller starts as the highweight at 117 pounds; Gondolieri carries 116, the same as Freefourinternet, who is making his California debut.

While victory in the $100,000 Inglewood could lead to a berth in the Shoemaker, the leading candidates for that race will be Grade 1 winner Redattore and comebacker Special Ring. They will train up to the Shoemaker.

On Saturday, the durable gelding Truly a Judge will switch from dirt to turf. The form of the 5-year-old Truly a Judge is puzzling. Truly a Judge was the 3-5 favorite in a $100,000 stakes race at Sunland Park April 5, but was empty on the far turn and finished last. Sunland Park is in El Paso, Texas. Elevation: 3,695 feet. The geography provides an original alibi.

"We think it was the altitude," trainer David Bernstein said. "Horses that ran good had been stabled there, but we were there only two days."

Bernstein said an examination of Truly a Judge after the race revealed no weakness. "He's good now, so we're going to give him a shot," he said.

Truly a Judge has won eight races and $336,833 from 27 starts, most of it since he was claimed for $20,000 in fall 2001. A threat of rain in Southern California complicates handicapping the Inglewood, but Bernstein and jockey Iggy Puglisi would appreciate a switch to the main track. Truly a Judge, who carries 112 pounds, won the only time he raced in mud. He finished third his only previous grass start.

On turf, Gondolieri may be the horse to beat. He finished second in the Arcadia Handicap last out while racing a 1 1/8 miles. Trained by Ron McAnally, Gondolieri will prefer the shorter Inglewood distance.

Other likely contenders include Touch of the Blues, third last out in the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland, and Blue Steller, who won a classified allowance in his most recent start at Santa Anita.