12/02/2004 1:00AM

Turf racing, anyone? Anyone?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is probably pointless to complain about the lack of depth in North America's long-distance male turf division. But let's do it anyway.

There once was a time, especially in California, when grass racing was absolute king. The trend began in the late 1960's and into the 1970's, when horses like Fiddle Isle, Fort Marcy, Life Cycle, Typecast, Astray, Big Spruce, and Quicken Tree were hatched in domestic nurseries and lasted long into the night. The greatest of them all was Cougar II, an Americanized Chilean who treated every race as if it were his very own Mardi Gras.

The John Henry era of the early 1980's kept grass racing on center stage and broke the virtual turf monopoly established by the horses of Charlie Whittingham. Year after year, for five solid seasons, Whittingham dished out the talent - Perrault, Providential, Exploded, Queen to Conquer, Gallant Vert, The Wonder, Galaxy Libra, Load the Cannons, Balzac - and John Henry shrugged them off.

The last great flurry of California's long-haul turf competition came in 1993 and 1994, when the French import Kotashaan and homegrown Bien Bien dominated the scene. Kotashaan was so good he became Horse of the Year, but Bien Bien was always at his neck.

Ten years later, big-time grass racing in Southern California is in danger of becoming an afterthought. Good horses, when they do emerge, usually disappear after a few promising efforts, while purses for the major events requiring stamina and class have steadily declined. (Six years ago, the Hollywood Turf Cup was worth $500,000. Saturday's running, which has attracted Breeders' Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now, carries a purse of $250,000.)

The Turf Cup is the last of 10 true tests on the current California calendar, reasonably spaced and available to all comers, ranging in distance from 1 1/4 miles to the nearly 1 3/4 miles of the San Juan Capistrano. This is what has occurred in 2004:

Sweet Return proved his 2003 Hollywood Derby victory at 1 1/4 miles was more than a paceless fluke by winning the San Marcos Handicap at the same distance. He hasn't won a race since.

Puerto Banus, always lurking in the weeds, seems good for one significant score a year. He got his this year in the San Luis Obispo Handicap in February.

Then along came Meteor Storm, and hope rose. His wins in the San Luis Rey and the San Juan Capistrano, followed by the Manhattan Handicap on Belmont day in New York, were true star turns. But a bad trip to Monmouth Park for the United Nations stopped his campaign cold. He is back in training now, looking toward 2005.

Rhythm Mad, a French horse with a strong reputation, might have won the San Juan with a better trip, then he did win the Jim Murray Memorial after a battle with good old Continental Red. That was the last we heard from Rhythm Mad.

The ensuing void was filled by Star Over the Bay, a son of Cozzene who had trouble winning for $35,000 at Saratoga during the summer of 2003. He was claimed for $80,000 in May at Hollywood Park, then proceeded to win the Sunset Handicap, the Del Mar Handicap, and the Clement Hirsch Memorial in front-running succession. His failure to handle the soft course or the company in the Breeders' Cup Turf should not be held against him. After all, Star Over the Bay was the lone Californian in the field, and now he is getting a break.

That leaves only Puerto Banus standing for Saturday's Turf Cup from the list of significant 2004 winners, unless you count Habaneros, hero of the marginalized Burke Handicap during the Oak Tree meet. Okay, let's count Habaneros.

And why not? So what if he was making his stakes debut, at the age of 4, in the 1 1/2-mile Burke? Who cares if he has a 15-month gap in the middle of his career, or that he ran for a $25,000 tag last summer at Del Mar?

On Thursday morning, he was jumping out of his skin at Ray Bell's Santa Anita Park barn, displaying an emerging self-confidence that he will need when he meets Better Talk Now at level weights.

"I never expected that we'd run into the Breeders' Cup Turf winner," said Bell, who bought Habaneros for $105,000 as a yearling. "Then again, I never really thought our horse would turn out to be much more than a nice, useful sort. Everything about him lately has been surprising."

It was colic that knocked a hole in the 3-year-old season of Habaneros. Surgery was required.

"They have to cut through three layers of hide and muscle to get to the guts and find the blockage," Bell said. "Fortunately, they did not need to remove any of the intestine. Still, it takes awhile for a horse to recover from the ordeal."

A grateful Habaneros has rewarded his handlers with three wins and a second since the surgery. Saturday's Turf Cup, top-heavy with Better Talk Now, seems a smart place to take a longshot swing.

"After what he went through, we never dreamed he'd be running in graded stakes, let alone the Turf Cup," Bell said. "I'm only confident of one thing - that he will run to the absolute best of his ability."

These days, that may be good enough.