03/17/2006 12:00AM

Uncle Denny gets surface to his liking

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When he starts Sunday in the $100,000 Crystal Water Handicap at Santa Anita, front-runner Uncle Denny will be racing for the first time on a turf course that is playing fair.

"He wants to be a free-running horse and use his speed," trainer Rafael Becerra said. "You can't take him back." It was too bad, because from Jan. 19 through Feb. 24, not a single front-runner, including Uncle Denny - who ran ran twice that period - won on the Santa Anita turf.

But also switches class levels Sunday - from classified allowance to California-bred stakes - and he did not exactly find an easy race. Although the turf bias has waned and speed can win, Uncle Denny might have company up front in the 12-horse field.

California Cup Classic winner , Hockey the General, Charbonnier, Red Warrior, and Super Strut.

McCann's Mojave will try to regain his best form off running sixth in the Sunshine Millions Classic.

"He only got beat seven lengths, and the horse that won came back to win the Santa Anita Handicap," trainer Paddy Gallagher said.

The Sunshine Millions has produced three subsequent winners. The winner, Lava Man, won the Big 'Cap; fourth-place finisher Buzzards Bay won a Golden Gate Fields stakes; and 11th-place finisher Proud Tower Too won a Santa Anita sprint stakes.

Gallagher said McCann's Mojave has trained well for his return to grass, and the 7-for-17 runner has an up-front running style similar to Uncle Denny's. Kent Desormeaux rides McCann's Mojave, the 119-pound highweight whose chances are compromised by his post 12 draw.

Uncle Denny's last two starts were the best of his career. He set the pace Jan. 20 in a classified allowance, but got nailed by Terroplane, who rallied from ninth. Uncle Denny pressed a faster pace Feb. 16, and was overhauled late again, by deep closers Fast and Furious and One Off, who rallied from last and next-to-last.

The races showed improved form over his two sprints last year.

"He's a totally different horse now," Becerra said. "If he stays sound, we'll have some fun."

Patrick Valenzuela rides Uncle Denny, who won the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby last March before he was sidelined. Overall, he has won 4 of 9, and is more versatile than a one-dimensional front-runner.

Longshots in the field are Mr. Wolverine, Calkins Road, and Lil Mitch.