03/09/2007 1:00AM

Two who slipped through the cracks


ARCADIA, Calif. - When Bettersweetmoment and Phar to Win start in stakes for California-breds next weekend, rivals owners and trainers can only shake their heads and move on. The ex-claimers could have been their horses.

Considering how their careers began, both Bettersweetmoment and Phar to Win have made remarkable ascensions to this level. Bettersweetmoment has won 8 of 11 starts, while Phar to Win has won 5 of 8. They won optional claiming races a few hours apart on March 1 to emphasize their excellent form.

Bettersweetmoment will make her stakes debut in Saturday's $125,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes for statebred fillies and mares on the hillside turf course. She has won her three starts since being claimed for $25,000 by James and Marcia Equils and trainer Steve Knapp at Hollywood Park last December.

Phar to Win will start in the $100,000 Crystal Water Handicap for statebreds over a mile on turf next Sunday, March 18.

While Bettersweetmoment has been claimed three times in her career, Phar to Win has raced throughout his career for breeders Betty and Robert Irvin. The Irvins and trainer Ray Bell did start Phar to Win in a $35,000 claimer for maidens last July, when the horse returned from a 20-month layoff. It is the only time he has run for a claiming price.

Phar to Win beat maiden claimers that day and won his next three starts, including the California Cup Starter Handicap last November.

When Phar to Win won an optional claimer over 1 1/4 miles on turf on March 1, it ended a two-race losing streak - a second in an allowance on turf and a seventh in an allowance on dirt.

Bell dismissed the loss on dirt. "I think we'll have to throw that out," he said. "We never did find a reason why he didn't run well. He had been so consistent for so long. I'm guessing that, maybe, he didn't like the track."

The March 1 victory impressed Bell, and put the Crystal Water Handicap and the $175,000 Khaled Stakes over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park on April 29 on Phar to Win's schedule.

"It was the best run of his career and one of the easiest in how he came out of it," Bell said of the March 1 race. "The ultimate goal is the Khaled Stakes."

A 5-year-old gelding by Avenue of Flags, Phar to Win has earned $157,680.

Bettersweetmoment scored the biggest payday of her career on March 1, earning $39,000 for winning the optional claiming race. A 4-year-old filly by Game Plan, she caught Knapp's eye when she won her first four starts, from October 2005 to January 2006.

"I like horses that win a lot of races," he said. "I took a shot."

Bettersweetmoment made her first two starts for breeders Larry and Sandy Fisher and Barry Shapiro. They lost her via a $20,000 claim in November 2005 to Bob Bone, who owned her for two starts. Bone lost Bettersweetmoment to the Rising Sun Racing Stable via a $40,000 claim in January 2006. She made four starts for Rising Sun until Knapp claimed her for $25,000.

"She won't run against claimers anytime soon," Knapp said. "I think she's worth $100,000."

After the Irish O'Brien, he may consider the B. Thoughtful Stakes over 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on April 29 for Bettersweetmoment. The B. Thoughtful and the Khaled stakes are part of the California Gold Rush program for statebreds.