02/04/2005 1:00AM

Whose turn to step forward?

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Benoit & Associates
Congrats must prove his runaway win over a wet track in last month's San Pasqual was no fluke.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The nation's handicap division will crystallize this weekend in three stages, starting Saturday with the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park and Grade 2 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita.

The final piece of the puzzle fits in Sunday at Santa Anita. Truly a Judge and Congrats head a field of 11 older horses in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap, a nine-furlong race that will be compared to day-earlier performances by Donn favorite Roses in May, and Strub favorite Rock Hard Ten.

"A lot of important stuff comes out of this weekend," said Richard Mandella, who hopes the Strub and San Antonio lead to grand plans for Rock Hard Ten and Congrats. "I hope to be worrying about whether to go to Dubai or run in the Big Cap, with both of them," he said.

The $250,000 San Antonio is the last prep for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 5, and heading into the San Antonio only one runner in the large field is a legitimate Grade 1 horse. Total Impact won the Hollywood Gold Cup last summer, but five losses since have opened the door for rags-to-riches Truly a Judge or wet-track specialist Congrats.

Bettors who trust Truly a Judge to improve on the 101 Beyer Speed Figure he earned last out will consider him the likely winner. The San Antonio par is 109. , who has not raced since a poor effort in November.

The remaining entrants are Go Bob, Castledale, Star Cross, Asong for Billy, Outta Here, and Epicentre. This year, quantity trumps quality. Pleasantly Perfect and Congaree won the last two San Antonios in four- and six-horse fields. This year, there are no superstars.

, a former $20,000 claimer, has won three straight, including back-to-back Grade 3's. Trainer David Bernstein credits his aggressive running style for recent improvement. "Part of it is we're putting him on the lead," he said. "Get him running early, and he thinks he's king of the hill."

However, Truly a Judge must improve off the 101 Beyer he earned last time, when he was a short horse.

"We hadn't done anything but jog and gallop him [between starts]," Bernstein said.

Truly a Judge had just a single half-mile work in three weeks between starts, yet won anyway. His works leading to the San Antonio have been outstanding.

"He's really on top of his game," Bernstein said.

Congrats is a main threat coming off a runaway San Pasqual win over a sloppy track. Did the wet track move him up?

"I don't know," Mandella said. "I expected him to run that way in the Native Diver."

The Native Diver was the first start in California for Congrats, and he finished sixth. Mandella turned the screws afterward by working Congrats faster, and he responded.

"I think he's a good horse on his way up," Mandella said. "He trains so good, he looks so good."

, a 5-year-old gelding trained by John Sadler, will attempt an improbable class jump into Grade 2 after a two-other-than allowance win on Dec. 29. Each of Skukuza's starts has been better than the previous.

"This horse has never backed up on the sheets. He's improved every race," Sadler said.

Since returning from a seven-month layoff, Skukuza has won three straight, though his career-high Beyer is only 95.

"We want him to keep coming along like he's a good horse. Whether that's a Grade 3, Grade 2, or Grade 1 horse, we don't know yet." Sadler said, adding that "these absolutely are tougher horses, but we think this is a pretty good horse himself."