01/16/2009 12:00AM

El Encino chalk figures overbet

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Country Star has won 3 of 6 career starts, including two Grade 1 races, and her $638,865 earnings are more than $200,000 greater than those of her next closest competitor in Sunday's 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 El Encino at Santa Anita. But that doesn't necessarily mean she's the right filly to bet in that race.

The concern is that Country Star's recent form has not been as strong as it was in her earlier races. She finished second on the turf at Belmont in her debut, which came in 2007, then reeled off consecutive wins in the Grade 1 Alcibiades and the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet. Two Grade 1 triumphs from three career starts was highly impressive.

But the win streak ended when she finished fifth as the even-money favorite in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland last spring. She then settled for sixth when better things were expected at 7-2 odds in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill.

Although Country Star won last time in her return from a 3 1/2-month layoff, she was hard-pressed to prevail by only a half-length as the 9-10 favorite. That $50,000 optional claiming race on the grass came at Saratoga in August. She'll have to improve on all three of those efforts to win this race. While that scenario is certainly possible, it is by no means a slam dunk. And giving her the benefit of the doubt will not get you a fair price on your bet. Factor in her name recognition and the popularity of trainer Bobby Frankel and jockey Rafael Bejarano, and she is likely to be overbet as she attempts to regain her best form.

Ginger Pop is an interesting alternative. This daughter of El Prado had been regarded as a turf specialist when she won twice and finished second twice from six races on that surface. But she ran the race of her life when she finished second as a 47-1 longshot, just 1 1/2 lengths behind Indian Blessing, going seven furlongs in the Grade 1 La Brea in her first race on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface. The 97 Beyer Speed Figure she earned that day is good enough to make her hard to handle if she can match it as she stretches back out to a route distance second time back from a layoff of more than four months. The good news is that she is training well for this race with a half-mile in 47.80 seconds and five furlongs in 59.80. The concern is that trainer Dan Hendricks shows just one victory from a group of 18 starters second time back from vacations of 45 through 180 days. But that's a small sample size, and I have to believe that Hendricks wouldn't have chosen this spot for Ginger Pop if he didn't believe she would be set to perform well.

Lethal Heat won the Grade 3 Santa Paula and the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks and finished a contending third in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks last year. She prepped for this race when she returned from a 4 1/2-month layoff in the Grade 3 Monrovia, a 6 1/2-furlong turf race going down the hill at Santa Anita. She was in contention early, lost position, then lacked room through most of the stretch while appearing to be full of run. She didn't find an opening until deep stretch, but showed good late energy and finished third, beaten just a length. Stretching out to 1 1/16 miles won't be a problem, as her victory in the Hollywood Oaks was earned at that distance. With a better trip likely and some improvement factored in second time back from the sidelines, and with overlaid odds likely, Lethal Heat is my selection.

I'll bet on Lethal Heat to win, and I'll box her in the exacta with Ginger Pop. I'll also key Lethal Heat on top in the exacta over Foxy Danseur, who finished only 1 3/4 lengths behind her in the La Brea; over Life Is Sweet, who finished a solid fourth at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Ashland in her lone previous start on a synthetic surface; and over Miss Singhsix, who looked good beating softer rivals last time.