07/03/2003 11:00PM

Argentina's stars worth watching

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NEW YORK - Last Saturday marked the 13th running of Argentina's Carreras de las Estrellas, or "Races of the Stars," the six Group 1 contests that are the Argentine equivalent of the Breeders' Cup, coming as they do at the end of the Southern Hemisphere season on the last weekend in June.

Last year's Estrellas has already produced 16 horses currently in training in the United States. They include the winners of three Estrellas races: Miss Terrible in the Juvenile Fillies, Freddy in the Juvenile, and Oh Take in the Classic. Also here are Flager, a winner first time out at Churchill Downs last week, and the promising mare Hopetown. With the Argentine peso still worth just 35 cents to the dollar, we can expect to see many of last week's Argentine stars in America soon.

The Carreras de las Estrellas are run in alternate years on the turf at San Isidro in the suburbs northwest of Buenos Aires and on the dirt at the Hipodromo Argentino in Palermo, not far from central Buenos Aires. This year's event was on the San Isidro turf course, a huge, level oval over which 1 1/2-mile races start out of a chute on the backstretch, in about the same place as 1 1/8-mile races on Belmont's main track.

The 1 1/4-mile Estrellas Classic went to Manpower, a 4-year-old son of Southern Halo who went off at odds of almost 3-1 as the third choice among five entrants. Trained by Roberto Pellegatta, Manpower is a bit on the inconsistent side, winning every other time out in his last six starts. He can perform on both turf and dirt, however, having won the Group 2 Clasico Coronel Miguel F. Martinez at Palermo at 1 1/8 miles on dirt last September. He had most recently been fourth going 1 1/2 miles in the Group 1 Gran Premio 25 de Mayo, losing to Genereux, who finished fifth in the Estrellas Classic. The Classic was just Manpower's second start in 2003 and seventh overall. Considering that he beat Denominado by seven lengths, his future appears bright.

Manpower was not the only impressive Estrellas winner. Asset, a speedy son of Salt Lake, ran off with the Estrellas Junior Sprint, a straight five-furlong dash for 2-year-olds, at unbackable odds of 1-4.

Trained by the unheralded Pablo Sahagian, Asset, who turned 3 on the Southern Hemisphere calendar on July 1, trounced De Troy by six lengths to win his fifth race in a row. The previous four included a pair of Group 3's: the 5 1/2-furlong Clasico Hipodromo Argentino on dirt and the five-furlong Clasico Velocidad on turf. His victories have come at an average winning margin of almost five lengths.

All six runners in the Juvenile Sprint were by American-bred stallions, with Salt Lake being joined in the lineup by Equalize, Parade Marshal, and Southern Halo, a son of Halo who is Argentina's leading stallion. In fact, five of this year's six Estrellas winners are by American-bred stallions.

Another of those winners was Emergente, a Salt Lake colt who was placed first after the disqualification of Little Jim in the one-mile Estrellas Juvenile. Last year this race was won on dirt by Freddy, who would later switch back to turf to take Argentina's best race, the Group 1 Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini over 1 1/2 miles. Trained by Juan Carlos Maldotti, Emergente won his maiden in February, going six furlongs on turf in his second start, then won the Group 1 Gran Premio Raul & Raul E. Chevalier at seven furlongs on turf. He lucked into the Juvenile, as Little Jim bumped third-place Inter Cleante.

There has been quite a bit of rain in Argentina lately. Emergente's last three races have all been run on turf courses labeled heavy, although the short grass on the San Isidro turf course, coupled with the track's solid foundation, was yielding decent times throughout the day. Little Jim, a son of the Forty Niner stallion Roar, was clocked in 1:37.50 for the mile. Asset got his five furlongs in 59.10, while Manpower was timed in 2:03.75 for 1 1/4 miles. All of those times are about four seconds slower than what would be expected on firm ground.

Last year's Juvenile Fillies winner, Miss Terrible, went on to record seven Group 1 victories in succession before weakening to finish fourth in her U.S. debut in the Grade 1 Gamely Handicap. Perhaps we should not expect such things from this year's winner, Dale Lunfa.

By the Forty Niner stallion Dalhart, Dale Lunfa prevailed by a short head over Salt Champ, yet another by Salt Lake. Dale Lunfa, trained by Juan Carlos Etchechoury, was reversing form with even-money choice Halo Ola, who finished fourth but had beaten Dale Lunfa into second by four and five lengths in a pair of Group 1's on turf in their two previous starts. Halo Ola had taken the one-mile Polla de Potrancas last time on firm ground in 1:33.65. She didn't take to the heavy going last Saturday and may yet be a better prospect than Dale Lunfa.

Distaff winner Potra Fabulous, a daughter of Potrillon, was the lone Estrellas winner sired by an Argentine-bred stallion. She beat the Mutakddim filly Artemisa by two lengths in the 1 1/4-mile race, giving trainer Pellegatta his second big win of the day. Out of the Kentucky-bred Liloy mare I'mso Fabulous, Potra Fabulous has now won two group races on turf and one on dirt between a mile and 1 1/4 miles.

She is a typical Argentine Thoroughbred: strong and versatile, capable of running on any surface and on any type of going, in North America as well as South America.