01/15/2002 12:00AM

Turf sprint has stakes quality

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Go ahead and call the seventh-race feature Thursday at Santa Anita a classified allowance. Trainer Ron Ellis knows better.

"It's going to be as good as a stake," said Ellis. He's right. A field of 14 entered the 6 1/2-furlong turf race, including Grade 1 winners Riviera and Scorpion; Grade 3 winners Lake William and El Cielo; and Brazilian Group 1 winner Thyer's. Ten will start; El Cielo must draw in from the also-eligible list.

With or without El Cielo, who is 10 for 13 on the downhill course, the stakes-caliber allowance offers plenty of alternatives, none more attractive than the Ellis-trained Malabar Gold. Though the 5-year-old Malabar Gold has not raced since April, a series of sharp workouts underscores the opinion of Ellis, who said: "We should hold our own. Other than coming off a layoff, he's as good as he ever was. He's as fit as I can get him."

Malabar Gold, owned by Wayne Hughes, threatened to emerge as the king of the hill last winter. He roared through his allowance conditions with three powerful wins on the downhill course, and was hammered to odds of 2-5 in the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap on closing day. He floundered and finished fourth.

One week later, Malabar Gold colicked, providing Ellis with a rational explanation for the San Simeon loss. Before Malabar Gold could return, he colicked again. "I decided to stop and regroup," Ellis said. "It wasn't anything physical; he just got sick on me."

There are no pre-race excuses Thursday. "He's doing really good physically and mentally," Ellis said of Malabar Gold, "but he's going to have to off first time back."

Malabar Gold has won 4 of 9, and Ellis hopes to stretch him out this year. After Thursday, Ellis will shop for a two-turn race as a bridge to the $400,000 Kilroe Mile on March 2.

That race is not likely to be any tougher than Thursday's allowance. The Bobby Frankel-trained Riviera won the Grade 1 Atto Mile in late 2000, though he has not raced since. Frankel also entered Auction House, a front-running router whose style suggests he will relish the shorter distance.

Lake William won the Dayjur Handicap last out at Hollywood Park, and he upset Malabar Gold in last year's San Simeon. Thyer's is making his U.S. debut for trainer Bob Baffert after winning 6 of 9 in Brazil. The 6-year-old Thyer's has posted a series of bullet workouts.

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