02/08/2007 12:00AM

Early going will tell Ermine's fate

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer Ronny Werner may have picked an ideal time to send his stakes-winning filly Ermine to California.

The winner of the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs in her last start, in November, Ermine may go favored in Saturday's $250,000 Santa Maria Handicap for older fillies and mares at Santa Anita.

The Grade 1 Santa Maria has not drawn a strong field. Ermine is one of four fillies and mares who share high weight of 115 pounds. The race lacks a Grade 1 winner, but two top contenders have won Grade 2 stakes in the last year - Sugar Shake in the El Encino on Jan. 14, and Seafree in the La Canada last winter.

The race is an important test for Ermine. She has yet to ship and win, having recorded her four wins at tracks where she was based.

Werner said that he will know quickly after start of the Santa Maria how Ermine is faring. If she is near the front, Ermine has a chance. If she is well off the pace, Werner will be worried.

"If she wants to fall out the back door early on, we're in trouble," Werner said. "That's what she's done when she hasn't shown up. She likes to get in the mix. She's a versatile filly. She has the speed, but she can lay back off of them."

Ermine used a stalking tactic to win the Falls City Handicap at 1o1/8 miles. The Santa Maria is run at 1o1/16 miles, and it features three fillies and mares who can race near the front.

River Savage led throughout the minor Paseana Handicap here on Jan. 12, her first stakes win. The Santa Maria is her graded stakes debut.

Seafree led throughout the 2006 La Canada. She has made two starts since that race, the most recent of which resulted in a third-place finish in the Pine Tree Lane Stakes here in the fall.

Sugar Shake won her first stakes in the El Encino for 4-year-old fillies, leading throughout the 1 1/16 miles. It was the best race of her 10-race career, which includes four wins in her last six starts.

Trained by Bobby Frankel, Sugar Shake was entered in the Santa Maria instead of Sunday's La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies because she was given a weight assignment of 115 pounds in Saturday's race, Frankel said.

Under the allowance conditions of the La Canada Stakes, Sugar Shake would have carried 120 pounds, spotting her rivals several pounds.

"It's a weight thing," Frankel said.

Dona Amelia, a four-time stakes winner in Chile in 2005 and 2006, is seeking her first stakes win in the United States. A closer, she finished third to River Savage in the Paseana.

Trainer Julio Canani has two starters, both of whom are outsiders. Freakin Streakin is winless in 11 starts, while Political Web was seventh in the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap on Jan. 28. Political Web won the Torrey Pines Stakes in September.