06/21/2001 11:00PM

A bigger, bolder Astra

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If ever there was a perfect name for Allen Paulson's last good horse, Astra fits the bill. The word summons an image of shimmering stars, arrayed upon a canvas of deepest sky - the same sky that lured Paulson to such heights as an aerospace entrepreneur and record-setting pilot.

When Astra won the Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park in May of 2000, Paulson was looking forward to watching her compete at Del Mar, not far from his home at the Del Mar Country Club. By the time his filly finished a dull fourth in the subsequent Beverly Hills Handicap, last July 2, Paulson was dealing with infinitely more serious concerns. He died 17 days later, finally surrendering to prostate cancer.

Astra did not run again in the year 2000. Her trainer, Simon Bray, said it was by design, to give her a break after an intense cluster of highly competitive events. The real reason, of course, was that Astra was in mourning, not only for her owner and breeder, but also for her dam, Savannah Slew, who died a few days before she won the Gamely.

Life goes on. Astra shed her veil and returned to work on April 14 with a victory in the Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita Park. If she had lost anything in the transition from age 4 to 5, it was not apparent to her victims that day. Making her first start in nine months - at 1 1/4 miles, no less - she easily won her seventh race in nine career starts.

There was a time such a feat would have been hailed far and wide. In winning a major 10-furlong event after such a layoff, Bray was taking a page out of the book written by such icons as Fitzsimmons, Whittingham, and McAnally, who did it with horses named Nashua, Cougar, and John Henry. Bray, who studied under Bill Mott, declined any special credit.

"It's a lot easier than people think," Bray said. "First of all, you're doing it with a horse that's bred for the distance. And they don't really have to run as hard. For me, it would be harder to get a horse to run and win at six furlongs the first time out."

Bray describes Astra as "totally different, both mentally and physically," since her poor performance in the 2000 Beverly Hills.

"She was a little more timid and anxious earlier in her career," he said. "She wanted to get things done in a hurry. Now she is very switched off when you want her to be."

The description is consistent with the offspring of Theatrical, a talented head case who was trained during his American career by Bobby Frankel and then by Mott. Astra is very much Theatrical's daughter.

"She runs so hard that she kind of depletes herself each time," Bray noted. "She wouldn't eat for a while after her races. But she's never eaten better than she has the last nine months. She's really holding her weight well."

Although she had no choice in the matter, Astra finds herself in the thick of the toughest division on the North American racing scene. Year after year, for the last 20 years at least, fillies and mares going eight to 10 furlongs on the grass face a level of competition that is relentless in its depth, drawing on talent not only from the U.S., but also from Europe and South America. Why it took so long for the Breeders' Cup to recognize this fact with a separate race for the division is anyone's guess.

The history of the Beverly Hills alone bears this out. In 1981, champion Track Robbery defeated Santa Margarita winner Princess Karenda and the accomplished Save Wild Life. In 1984, champion Royal Heroine beat Vanity Handicap winner Adored and Santa Barbara winner Comedy Act. Allen Paulson added the Beverly Hills to his trophy chest when Estrapade defeated Treizieme in 1986.

The Richard Mandella era began in 1990 when a trainer's wildest wish came true - a Grade 1 dead heat between stablemates Beautiful Melody and Reluctant Guest. In the 1994 Beverly Hills, Mandella sent out Corrazona to defeat champions Hollywood Wildcat and Flawlessly, who won it in 1992 and 1993. In 1999 he won the race with Virginie over Tranquility Lake and Keeper Hill.

Consider for a moment the mares who are not in Sunday's Beverly Hills field.

Perfect Sting, despite her loss to males, is still at the head of the class.

Tranquility Lake may be heading east. Tout Charmant is on the road back while her stablemate, Beautiful Noise, is taking a breather after tough losses in the Santa Barbara and the Gamely. If they all come together at Belmont on Breeders' Cup day for the Distaff Turf, it could be the best race on the card.

With defending Beverly Hills champ Happyanunoit back in form after her win in the Gamely Handicap, the race figures to be a difficult test of Astra's newfound maturity. A small field and a paceless scenario add intrigue to the equation.

Bray, for his part, is just glad to have a chance to erase a bad memory. For the past year, he has been kicking himself for running Astra in her first Beverly Hills.

"It was my mistake," he said. "It looks like it was the classic case of a horse 'bouncing.' I hate to use that word, because I don't believe in it.

"There is a reason why that happens. I just ran her back too soon. But sometimes you don't really know until you run them."

Now that he's one year smarter, Bray is looking for a much different Beverly Hills.