01/13/2006 1:00AM

A bigger test for big winners


ARCADIA, Calif. - East meets West in the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita, where massive New York shipper Play Ballado faces the same question as California-based Proposed. That is - is a blowout win in a small allowance-class field a sufficient prelude to victory in a $150,000 stakes such as the El Encino?

At 17 hands, looks the part. Trained by John Ward, she scored her third win from four starts Nov. 2 at Aqueduct, drawing off by more than seven lengths in a minor stakes with five runners. It was time for a stiffer challenge. Ward and owner John Oxley sent Play Ballado to Santa Anita to prepare for the 1 1/16-mile El Encino for 4-year-old fillies, and assistant trainer Sally Schu said Play Ballado has thrived since arriving on Jan. 4.

"Our biggest concern was adapting to the surface, but she seems to handle it quite well," Schu said. Play Ballado had a solid Santa Anita workout one week ago. The main issue she faces on Sunday is whether she can handle tougher competition.

It is the same challenge facing , who won a two-other-than allowance by five lengths Dec. 16 at Hollywood Park. The race had just five starters, and trainer John Shirreffs called it her best race yet.

"She ran past a horse," he said. "She wasn't leading in or lugging in."

It was the fourth win from eight starts for Proposed, who earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure. The El Encino par is 99. Based on speed figures and experience, Proposed enters with an advantage over Play Ballado, whose career-best Beyer is 93.

Five others entered the El Encino, which is the second leg of the La Canada series for 4-year-old fillies. Graded-stakes winner Three Degrees is the most accomplished in the field, but she is entering uncharted territory - all nine of her starts have been on turf.

"It's a big guess," said trainer Paddy Gallagher. "It's a one-shot deal to see what happens."

Finding a race for has been tough. Rain forced her to scratch from the first leg of the La Canada series, the Grade 1 La Brea at seven furlongs, and the Grade 2 San Gorgonio on Jan. 8 was too far (nine furlongs) off a three-month rest.

With the La Brea winner, Pussycat Doll, waiting for the La Canada on Feb. 12, four others entered the El Encino. They are front-runner Somethinaboutlaura, a northern California speedster capable of an upset; deep closer Shimmer; Skipping Court; and Cream Donut Keith.