04/18/2006 12:00AM

'Wolverine' looks even better now


ARCADIA, Calif. - Mr. Wolverine was two days away from his stakes debut last summer, when all hell broke loose.

It was late July, and Mr. Wolverine was preparing to ship to Del Mar for the Oceanside Stakes on opening day. But when the van pulled up to his barn at Santa Anita, Mr. Wolverine tossed a fit. It was no big deal, until he kicked a hind leg through a window and got cast inside his stall.

"It was horrible," said trainer Jorge Gutierrez. "He got cut up, his leg blew up, and we spent three months battling infection."

, who won his debut and finished a close third in his second start, survived the ordeal and has returned better than ever. Thursday at Santa Anita, he makes his second start back and will be strongly favored to win race 7, a first-level allowance for Cal-breds at a mile on turf.

"He should be pretty tough against those horses," Gutierrez said.

It is an understatement. Based on an outstanding March 19 comeback - second by a nose in the $113,000 Crystal Water Handicap - Mr. Wolverine should win the allowance.

Seven others will try for an upset, including , runner-up under similar conditions his last two; and Karn, fourth last time at even-money. Master Heat, Fly Forrest Fly, Spectacular Bay, and Cabo's Dawn also were entered.

Gutierrez said he did not intend to start Mr. Wolverine's comeback in a tough Cal-bred stakes such as the Crystal Water, but weather mandated it. Mr. Wolverine was entered twice in grass races, but the races were moved to dirt. Gutierrez said, "He's a much better horse on turf."

Mr. Wolverine trained so well that Gutierrez finally entered him in the Crystal Water just to get a race into him. He almost won. Ridden by David Cohen, Mr. Wolverine saved ground and challenged for the lead in the stretch, but could not hold off Super Strut. It was a super effort by a horse making his first start in nine months, and third start of his career.

Cohen, who has ridden Mr. Wolverine all three starts, rides again Thursday. Gutierrez said he expects another big effort.

"I like this horse a lot," he said. "I'm pleased with the way he came out of the race."