01/02/2003 1:00AM

Balto Star out to show new dimension

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - In 20 races Balto Star has gone through more highs and lows than most racehorses do in much longer careers.

There were spectacular wins in the Spiral Stakes and Arkansas Derby, followed by drubbings in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. There were flashy victories on the turf at Saratoga each of the last two summers, but they were sandwiched around flops in the Aqueduct Handicap and Breeders' Cup Mile.

Through it all, Balto Star has earned more than $1 million under the care of trainer Todd Pletcher, who believes he now has the gelding poised to become a more consistent performer. The first race for Balto Star as a 5-year-old comes Saturday in the $150,000 Appleton Handicap at Gulfstream Park, which drew a full field of older horses.

Balto Star long has been known as a horse with exceptional speed, but one who can be defeated if pressed hard enough through the early stages of his races. Yet Pletcher believes that reputation is now undeserved because, ever so gradually, Balto Star has become more willing to conserve his energy.

The Appleton, a Grade 2 race scheduled for a mile over turf, should present an ideal opportunity for proving whether that transition has indeed been fully realized. Balto Star not only will have to overcome the far outside post. Several other speed types - including Krieger, Saint Verre, and North East Bound - have been entered in the Appleton, meaning Balto Star probably will have to rally from off the pace to win.

"There's plenty of speed in there, but I like what our horse has been doing lately," said Pletcher. "He's been sitting in a position off them, not having to use his speed. He's been training well, and this is a good starting point for the year."

If Balto Star and the other early runners falter, the Appleton might well set up for a stalker such as Baptize or Hail the Chief, or a deep closer such as Bail Out the King.

As has frequently been the case in recent years, wet turf may force the Appleton to be moved to the dirt. Heavy rain hit this area early Wednesday, and more showers were forecast for early Friday. The Saturday forecast called for partly cloudy skies and a high temperature of 67.

The Appleton highlights a Saturday card that also includes the $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap and an entry-level allowance route for 3-year-olds.

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