09/10/2003 11:00PM

An Atto encore for Chopinina

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Few took Chopinina seriously heading into last year's Atto Mile, where she was making her first appearance in 10 weeks after opening up her campaign with a pair of wins in optional claiming races.

But many were reconsidering their positions after Chopinina, at 55-1, led the way to deep stretch before giving way to California invader Good Journey and settling for second.

Fast-forward one year and Chopinina, a 5-year-old mare whom Alec Fehr trains for the Knob Hill Stable of Steve Stavro, is set for a second crack at the Atto Mile, the Grade 1, $1 million turf feature for 3-year-olds and upward here Sunday.

But, as Fehr explains, the circumstances have been decidedly different leading up Chopinina's 2003 Atto Mile challenge.

"After her second race last year, we were kind of looking for a spot," said Fehr. "Mr. Stavro suggested we try the Atto Mile. I kind of agreed, thinking as we got closer something would come up and we wouldn't end up going there.

"I pointed out to him, very clearly, how tough it was going to be, what we were up against."

But as the Atto Mile approached, Stavro remained dead set on the venture, and Fehr himself became excited about Chopinina's chances.

"I was very confident, the way the filly was training," he said. "I kind of figured the fractions she would run, and my hat was off to them if they were going to beat her."

Chopinina concluded her 2002 season by finishing 11th, beaten eight lengths, after stalking the pace over 1 1/4 miles of yielding going in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Arlington Park.

It was that event, rather than the Atto Mile, that was Chopinina's ultimate goal heading into this season.

"Our initial plan was not to go back to this race," said Fehr. "The game plan was to stretch her out for a return engagement in the Breeders' Cup.

"But after the Dance Smartly, I threw that right out, and here we are again."

Chopinina started her current campaign by stalking a moderate pace and coming up a half-length short as the runner-up in the Nassau, a 1 1/16-mile turf race here June 1.

But in the Dance Smartly, over 1 1/8 miles on the same course July 5, the mare became embroiled in a taxing front-end duel and faded to finish sixth, beaten three lengths, sending Fehr back to the drawing board.

Four weeks later, Chopinina resurfaced in the six-furlong Royal North, where she stalked the early pace en route to recording her first career stakes score.

The celebrations were just beginning when Fehr declared that Chopinina was on her way back to the Atto Mile. And, once again, the trainer likes her situation.

"The time frame is perfect for her - she runs very well fresh," said Fehr. "And, coming off the sprint, I liked the way she relaxed early."

Fehr believes that flexibility could be a decided asset for Chopinina in her Atto Mile encore.

"It gives us the option of doing what we want to do," said Fehr. "We can sit and see how the race unfolds. She doesn't have to be gunning it up front."

That's certainly not to say, however, that Chopinina would hesitate to seize the day if the circumstances so dictated.

"If no one's making a run at all, I don't see why we won't go ahead and roll," said Fehr. "And it doesn't bother her if she doesn't have a clear lead. She doesn't mind having a horse with her."

New rider no stranger to upset winner

Those looking for additional reasons to support Chopinina may consider the presence of jockey Richard DosRamos, who will ride her for the first time Sunday.

DosRamos, who celebrated his 41st birthday Wednesday, has guided two Knob Hill upsetters to victory here in seven-figure races, winning the Molson Export Million with 31-1 Benburb in 1992 and the $1.5 million Canadian International with 18-1 Thornfield in 1999.

Benburb and Thornfield both were trained by Phil England.

Invaders begin arriving

The first wave of Atto Mile shippers checked in from south of the border on Thursday morning.

Freefourinternet, based in Kentucky with trainer Joan Scott, arrived at about 7 a.m. accompanied by assistant trainer and exercise rider Frederic Colmache.

Sarafan and Touch of the Blues, who represent a solid one-two punch for California-based trainer Neil Drysdale, checked in shortly before 9:30 a.m. after being vanned over from nearby Toronto International Airport.

Assistant trainer Robert Guest was here to greet Sarafan and Touch of the Blues.

Beckon notches first victory

Apprentice jockey Chad Beckon recorded his first lifetime win in the fourth race here Wednesday evening, guiding 9-5 favorite Lil Personalitee from off the pace to win $62,500 claiming race over 1 1/16 miles.

Beckon, the 23-year-old son of the late rider Dan Beckon, began his career here last Friday. Lil Personalitee, who is trained by Fort Erie-based Michaela Neubauer, was his seventh mount.