10/05/2001 11:00PM

Bella Bellucci stepping way up


ELMONT, N.Y. - When the gates opened for the fifth race at Belmont Park on Sept. 9, many of those who made Bella Bellucci the 1-2 favorite surely let out a groan. The debuting juvenile filly fell out of the gate under Mike Smith, spotting her seven rivals at least one length in the six-furlong race.

Those groans quickly turned to glee, however, as Bella Bellucci, without any encouragement from Smith, moved into contention around the turn and eventually drew clear for a 5 3/4-length victory while racing five wide the entire trip.

Trainer Neil Drysdale said Bella Bellucci's slow start was by design.

"We didn't want to rush her away from the gate," Drysdale said. "Mike had been instructed to let her settle, not to rush her, which he did. She relaxed well and I thought she won well."

Bella Bellucci will now try to make the jump from the maiden ranks to graded stakes company Monday when she runs in the $100,000, Grade 2 Astarita Stakes as Belmont presents a 10-race Columbus Day card.

Bella Bellucci will face only four opponents, the most accomplished being Forest Heiress, who is unbeaten in three starts.

Drysdale said he chose to run Bella Bellucci in the Astarita rather than Saturday's Frizette because he didn't want to stretch her out from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles in her second start. The Astarita is run at 6 1/2 furlongs. Drysdale said that if Bella Bellucci runs well Monday, she could be a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Gary Stevens, who had been working Bella Bellucci before her debut, has the mount Monday from post 3.

It would behoove Stevens to get Bella Bellucci out of the gate in good order, because a slow start could make it difficult to catch Forest Heiress, the probable Astarita favorite. Forest Heiress has won all three of her races on the front end, including a 3 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Sorority Stakes at Monmouth on Sept. 1.

While Forest Heiress won her last two starts by open lengths, she won her debut by only a nose. According to trainer Ben Perkins Jr., there were extenuating circumstances. The conditions at Monmouth Park that day were tornado-like and Forest Heiress propped coming into the stretch to look at blowing debris. She recovered quickly enough to get the win.

Forest Heiress breaks from

post 4 under Jorge Chavez and carries high weight of 120 pounds, spotting three pounds to the rest of the field.

Debut winners Argentina and Speed to Burn, as well as the stakes-placed Ghost Wrestling, complete the field.