06/21/2001 11:00PM

Defection leaves Obeah wide open


Trainer Shug McGaughey said Serra Lake will remain at Belmont Park for Saturday's $250,000 Hempstead Handicap, rather than run at Delaware Park, where she was entered in Sunday's $100,000 Obeah Stakes.

That's good news for the 10 other fillies and mares in the 1 1/8-mile Obeah because Serra Lake, with three consecutive wins at the distance, would have been tough.

In Serra Lake's absence, Under the Rug could go off as the slight choice.

Under the Rug is 3 for 4 at Delaware Park and 3 for 5 at the Obeah distance. In her last, Under the Rug won the Nastique Stakes, her first race since Dec. 17. If the track has some moisture in it and Under the Rug doesn't bounce from her return effort, she should give a good account of herself.

Under the Rug is owned by Jane Lunger's Christiana Stables. Lunger raced Obeah, a two-time winner of the Delaware Handicap, with her late husband, Harry. The Lungers later bred Obeah and one of the mare's daughters, Go for Wand, became a champion for the Lungers.

Mark Johnston rides Under the Rug for trainer Jim Murphy from post 1.

Shag, a 5-year-old mare, had an 11-month layoff before returning to the races in the spring. She finished a close fourth in the Nastique in her last start and might be ready to fire her best shot since making her return.

Jose Caraballo rides Shag for trainer Michael Zwiesler.

Strolling Belle should benefit from the absence of Serra Lake, who has beaten her in consecutive starts. In their last matchup, Strolling Belle finished fifth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths by Serra Lake, the winner of the Pimlico Distaff.

Heberto Castillo Jr. comes in from Belmont Park to ride Strolling Belle, who figures to stalk the early speed, Crystal Sea.

Crystal Sea established the pace in the Just a Game Breeders' Cup on the grass earlier this month at Belmont and then faded to sixth.

In May, Crystal Sea wired an optional claimer at one mile on the dirt at Delaware Park, but 1 1/8 miles might be beyond her scope.

Irving's Baby was on a roll this winter when she won three in a row at Laurel. Trainer Todd Pletcher gave the 4-year-old Irving's Baby a breather after she finished fourth in an allowance race at Aqueduct on April 27 and she has been working well for her return.