05/07/2003 12:00AM

British are coming to Ascot


SAN MATEO, Calif. - Two British-bred colts who began their careers in Europe are the likely favorites for Saturday's $100,000 Ascot Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

Just Wonder, trained by Laura de Seroux, and Helms Deep, trained by Carla Gaines, are both nicely bred European runners who recently came to the United States.

"He's a nice-looking colt," Gaines said of Helms Deep, purchased by Warren B. Williamson, a longtime client. "He was only beaten a short distance in a Grade 3," she said of the colt's 4 3/4-length loss in the Prix Eclipse in France.

Gaines, giving reasons for buying Helms Deep, said she liked his pedigree - he's by Royal Applause out of a Chief Singer mare - and that as a maiden he had all his conditions.

Helms Deep won his U.S. debut, going wire to wire in a 1 1/8-mile maiden turf race. He ran evenly when he finished fourth in the Academy Road at a mile on the turf in his next start. The race was run in a fast 1:33.69.

"He really wants more ground," Gaines said. "He ran well in that race.

Gaines said timing was the key to her decision to run Helms Deep in the Ascot.

"We had planned on and made flight arrangements for a 1 1/8-mile stakes at Keeneland," she said. "He breezed great but then popped a quarter crack, so we didn't ship him."

Just Wonder was spotted by de Seroux's husband, Emmanuel, after the horse ran second in a maiden race and then won his second start in France.

"He's extremely good-looking and well-bred," Laura de Seroux said of Just Wonder, a son of Hernando and a Capote mare. She said that the horses he ran against in France "have subsequently been some of the good ones there."

Just Wonder won an $80,000 optional claimer in his U.S. debut on the turf on Jan. 31 at Santa Anita.

De Seroux took a shot in the San Rafael on the main track at Santa Anita, hoping the colt could adapt to the dirt, but he didn't seem to like it. In his last start, the La Puente at a mile on the turf at Santa Anita, he broke slowly and was far back, then rallied for fifth.

"This is a horse I think a lot of," she said. "The extra sixteenth of a mile is appealing. This wasn't out of desperation. We were trying to find an easy spot to get him a win and build up his confidence."

Four runners are likely to tackle the two British-breds: Direct Male, Frisco Johnny, Iron Lad and Rapier Dance.

* Ten older sprinters meet in Friday's feature, an allowance race at six furlongs. There is plenty of speed in the race, which could set things up for comebacking Private Aviator, Havana, or Poppy's Courage