08/07/2002 12:00AM

Abuela Esther: Don't call her a maiden any longer

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MIAMI - Trainer Marty Wolfson had originally planned on running Abuela Esther, a 5-year-old mare bred in Uruguay, in a maiden race at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia. Instead, he decided to keep her at Calder for Monday's $37,730 Little Sister Stakes, a race that Abuela Esther won by two lengths over Sugar N Spice in a field that also included Fly Me Crazy, third-place finisher behind Gold Mover and Xtra Heat in the recent Grade 2 Princess Rooney Handicap.

A maiden beating the best filly and mare sprinters on the grounds?

Well, not quite.

Abuela Esther is one of five Uruguayan-breds in Wolfson's barn. All of them raced at Uruguay's Las Piedras racetrack before being brought privately and sent to the United States by Eric del Valle. Las Piedras is not a track sanctioned by the Uruguayan Jockey Club. So even though Abuela Esther had won six of 10 starts before shipping to North America, some tracks still recognized her as a maiden.

Calder is not one of those tracks. Wolfson and Del Valle, a former president of Panama, found that out when they tried to run Baron Rojo, a multiple stakes winner at Las Piedras, in a maiden race here on July 14. Baron Rojo was scratched by the stewards on the order of Calder track president Ken Dunn.

"When I saw Baron Rojo listed in the Daily Racing Form as a maiden with no past performances but with a disclaimer explaining the horse had won several races that were not recognized in this country, I assumed the information had come from The Jockey Club," said Dunn. "So I called Buddy Bishop, registrar for The Jockey Club, who said that was not the case. He said his organization was not a rule-making body and that they merely send all information received on foreign-bred horses along with the papers. Any decision on the status of Baron Rojo or foreign-breds with similar histories had to be made by the individual jurisdiction at which these horses were to compete. So I decided to scratch Baron Rojo, figuring it was better to have to state my position to one owner than have to explain it to 13 other owners and the fans who bet on the race if Baron Rojo had run."

Dunn said he discovered that two other Uruguayan-breds who had won races at Las Piedras, El Once and American Time, had competed as maidens in California. El Once finished second at Bay Meadows on June 15. American Time finished sixth at Hollywood Park on July 6 and third there July 21. Hollywood Park, like Calder, is owned by Churchill Downs Inc.

Dunn called Don Richardson, senior vice president of corporate racing for Churchill Downs Inc., and told him about the Uruguayan horses who had run as maidens.

"As a result, Don has informed me he is in the process of writing a memo stating that in the future all wins on any track in any country, whether recognized or not, will be considered as far as a horse's conditions are concerned at all Churchill Downs facilities," Dunn said.

Dunn said that he also contacted officials at the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the North American Parimutuel Regulators Association, the country's two national groups that recommend rules and regulations. Officials from both groups, Dunn said, will try to convince all tracks to adopt a similar rule.

"I think this kind of thing could be a potential black mark on the industry if there is not a standard rule," Dunn said. "Imagine, for instance, if Abuela Esther had run in a maiden race at Mountaineer Park. She just beat the best fillies and mares on the grounds here. Could you imagine what would have happened if she'd competed against maidens in West Virginia?"

Wolfson, for his part, has taken in stride the news that none of his Uruguayan-breds are eligible for maiden races at Calder.

"Actually I agree with Ken's decision," said Wolfson. "My feeling is that once a horse breaks their maiden, they are no longer a maiden no matter where it occurs. Unfortunately, my owner bought these horses thinking they were eligible for maiden races because he'd seen others before them run as maidens at other tracks in the U.S."

As for Abuela Esther, Wolfson admitted to being a bit surprised she could win a race like the Little Sister in her United States debut.

"She was training extremely well, but I wasn't sure she could beat those horses," said Wolfson. "Like all the Uruguayan horses I received from Mr. Del Valle, it took several months to get them to the point where they began to flourish here. Most had never had their mouths worked on before. Abuela Esther's was so sensitive I had to run her in a plastic bit. And it looked like most of them had gone at least eight weeks without being shod."