08/29/2003 11:00PM

Year-old rivalry resumes in Cal Turf


SAN MATEO, Calif. - Ninebanks and Surprise Halo have established quite a rivalry since last year's California Turf Championship at Bay Meadows.

Ninebanks defeated Surprise Halo by a half-length in last year's race, and the two figure to be strong contenders against six rivals in Monday's running of the one-mile, $100,000 turf race for Cal-breds.

Both relish the turf here. Ninebanks has five wins and two seconds in nine starts; Surprise Halo is 14-6-4-2.

Although Surprise Halo set the pace in the $100,000 Tanforan Handicap and the $150,000 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap last spring, he, like Ninebanks, is better coming from off the pace. Both should get their preferred stalking trips Monday with 3-year-old Obermeister and recently claimed Long Gone Con, the likely pacesetters.

Since last year's California Turf Championship, the two met in the Cal Cup Mile at Santa Anita with both suffering from troubled trips. Surprise Halo, who drew the rail in the 13-horse field, finished sixth, beating seventh-place Ninebanks, who broke from the extreme outside, by one length.

The two met in the Grade 3 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap with Ninebanks nipping Surprise Halo by a nose. Ninebanks then won the Grade 2 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Handicap over this course as Surprise Halo finished sixth.

On June 15, Ninebanks was second and Surprise Halo fourth in the Foster City Handicap here.

"When I beat him, it's for no money," Surprise Halo's owner Dennis Ward said.

Although considered primarily a turf horse, Surprise Halo won the Alamedan Handicap and was second in the $100,000 Joseph T. Grace on the fair circuit.

"I think it's a plus to be back on the turf, but he's competitive every place he goes," said Ward, who is in charge of his son Wesley's northern California string of horses.

"Everything's the same with him, other than changing his shoes for turf or dirt. He works the same. I tried to give him a faster work after his last race followed by a slower work. Everything is perfect going into this race."

Ninebanks is winless since back-to-back nose victories in the Golden Gate Breeders' Cup and San Francisco Breeders' Cup.

He was second, beaten three-quarters of a length, as Handyman Bill ran the race of his life in the Foster City. He then lost to rising star Candy Ride at Hollywood Park and Touch of the Blues at Del Mar.

"He's been running well," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said.

Despite his recent losses, Ninebanks is the one to beat as he attempts to join Native Desert as the only multiple winner of this race.