01/16/2009 12:00AM

Big year may be ahead for Country Star

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PHOENIX - Last year's 3-year-old filly division was fantastic - Eight Belles, Music Note, Proud Spell, Indian Blessing, Little Belle, Zaftig. It's hard to believe the crop achieved so much when you consider that the filly many thought would be the best of the bunch in 2008 hardly ran at all.

Country Star exploded onto the stage at 2 in 2007. She won the Grade 1 Alcibiades as a maiden. She then went to California and romped in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet. Since most everyone was convinced that champion Indian Blessing would be best at a mile or shorter, the prevailing thought was that Country Star, a daughter of Empire Maker, would be the queen of the crop going long. Ah, the best laid plans.

Country Star just never looked comfortable in 2008, for whatever reason. She made only three starts - finishing fifth in the Ashland in the spring at Keeneland, sixth in the Kentucky Oaks, and then won an allowance race over older fillies and mares on the turf at Saratoga. She looked like she was ready to get back on track after that victory, but it didn't happen.

Trainer Bobby Frankel seemed to be grasping for reasons for her mediocre performances. The last time she was entered, in the Grade 1 Gazelle at Belmont in September, which was to be a showdown with Music Note, she threw such a fit in the gate that she cut herself badly and had to be scratched.

The good news, however, is she's still here. The easy thing would have been to retire the two-time Grade 1 winner after such a lost campaign. Owner Stonerside Stable didn't. Instead, she's worked strongly and regularly for a 2009 campaign and resurfaces in Sunday's Grade 2 El Encino at Santa Anita, a 1 1/16-mile race for 4-year-old fillies.

She faces none among the top of the division there, although they're not a bunch of pushovers, either. Lethal Heat is a warrior who can run on anything and at any distance. She comes off a fine third in the Grade 3 Monrovia down the hillside turf course Jan. 3. She was beaten just a length by the Frankel-trained Jibboom, and had she not encountered significant traffic troubles in the lane could have been closer or even won. Trained by Barry Abrams, Lethal Heat won the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks at this same 1 1/16-mile distance on synthetic footing.

Still, this looks like a great spot for Frankel to try and get Country Star going again. A big run here can propel her into the prominence most of us expected - just a year later than we thought.

Two old warriors meet

The Frankel-trained Midships is sick and will stay in the barn instead of running in Monday's Grade 2 San Marcos Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on the turf. It would have been a good chance to see how this European import, who was a solid third in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby this fall, has developed and whether he could move forward enough to possibly take control of a division which, out West, has a vacuum at the top.

Instead, the race will be filled with familiar faces, including Artiste Royal and Obrigado.

Both have shown they can beat Grade 1 competition when they fire their best shot. The good news for them is they likely won't have to do that in order to beat the rest in the San Marcos field.

Artiste Royal went to Hong Kong for the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup Dec. 14 but was no factor, finishing 11th of 14, well behind winner Eagle Mountain, who had finished second in the Breeders' Cup Turf. The return Stateside can surely help Artiste Royal, who just last June won the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham and who in October 2007 won the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch at Santa Anita. Of course, you always wonder about the effects of such a grueling trip and race

Obrigado doesn't have quite the resume as Artiste Royal, but of the two may be the one most ready for a top effort. His Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup effort Dec. 6 is an indication of his talent. He stalked the pace and finished full of run to be second to top-class Champs Elysees. A repeat of that takes this.

Oh, and trainer Neil Drysdale doesn't care which of the two wins. He trains both.