03/25/2003 1:00AM

Van Rouge primed to give best

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Van Rouge was just starting to develop into a stakes-class runner last spring when he was forced to the sidelines. With a recent prep, he should begin to fulfill his promise when he heads a field of middle-distance grass runners in Thursday's featured seventh race at Santa Anita.

The one-mile race drew a field of 10. Van Rouge is one of nine horses eligible for the nonwinners-of-two conditions; comebacking Little Ghazi is the only horse entered for the $80,000 claiming price.

Van Rouge was off for nearly 10 months before returning in a downhill turf sprint three weeks ago. He had an ideal tune-up. He pressed a sharp pace and ran on well to finish third, only 1 1/2 lengths behind course specialist Thunder Bullet, while well clear of the fourth horse.

Last year, Van Rouge used a victory against maidens on the downhill turf course as a tune-up for a win in the Ascot Handicap at Bay Meadows. He has never finished out of the money in four starts, and seems well-spotted for another top effort Thursday.

Van Rouge also figures to get a good trip. He will break from post 2, and he has sharp early speed, an edge when the rails are placed at 24 feet, as they will be Thursday.

The early pacesetter figures to be Shah Jehan, who is coming out of sprints, but if jockey Martin Pedroza elects to rate Shah Jehan, Van Rouge is more than capable of taking up the early running. And if Shah Jehan goes, Van Rouge will be able to stalk a horse who frequently fades. Either way, Van Rouge should be in an ideal spot.

Marshall Rooster is coming off a four-length win against a first-level allowance field Feb. 16 and now heads to the next level. His late run often has been compromised by tough trips, but when he found room last time, he put in a sharp late run.

Trainer Bobby Frankel sends out Epicentre, a newcomer from Great Britain who won twice at 1 1/4 miles last year. He may prefer more distance than Thursday's flat mile, but he has a sharp series of works for this, and must be respected, for Frankel, if no other reason.

Weed Runner finished fourth last time out in the restricted San Marino Handicap. He won three straight before that, and must be given a chance to bounce back in this spot.

Also of interest on Thursday's card is the first race, a two-furlong dash for 2-year-olds including Gambling Rent, a Jerry Dutton-trained homebred who finished second following a rough start in his debut two weeks ago.

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