08/05/2003 12:00AM

'Yankee' must prove himself

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Yankee Gentlemen gained an immediate following with an 11-length win in his debut at Gulfstream Park in March 2002. He has been trying to live up to that performance ever since.

In five subsequent starts, Yankee Gentlemen has managed only one victory, which came in an allowance race. In his other starts, he unseated jockey Jerry Bailey at the start of an allowance race, finished well beaten in two stakes races, and finished second on turf.

Thursday at Del Mar, Yankee Gentlemen, now 4, returns from a year-long layoff and makes his first start in California in a $59,000 optional-claiming race at 6 1/2 furlongs. If he defeats his five opponents, he could run soon in a stakes.

Owned by Marty and Pam Wygod, Yankee Gentlemen is now trained by John Shirreffs, having been trained by Bill Mott for his first six races. Shirreffs has been trying to find an allowance race for Yankee Gentlemen since the start of the Del Mar meet on July 23. There was even a back-up plan of running in the $150,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap on Aug. 17.

Yankee Gentlemen drew the rail for Thursday's seventh race, and is likely to be favored despite the layoff.

"He has a wonderful way of going," Shirreffs said. "Everyone had high hopes for him and still does."

Yankee Gentlemen was so well regarded last year that he started as the favorite in the Grade 2 Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard. After leading in early stretch, he tired to finish fourth, 5 1/2 lengths behind Gygistar. In the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes a month later, Yankee Gentlemen hit the gate at the start and still contended for the lead, but finished eighth.

In his most recent start, in August 2002, Yankee Gentlemen finished second as the favorite in an allowance race on turf at Saratoga.

Yankee Gentlemen runs close to the pace, and is likely to follow Hurricane Smoke, who won an allowance race at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf at Hollywood Park on May 30 by leading throughout. Hurricane Smoke was a front-running winner on dirt at Santa Anita last January.

Bills Paid is another front-runner. Stakes-placed in three races in 2001, Bills Paid has made one start this year, finishing last of 13 in the Smile Sprint Handicap at Calder on July 12 after a poor start.

Pelirrojo will be closing but is winless in his last five starts.

"We're taking the blinkers off and I think he'll run great," trainer John Sadler said.