01/06/2004 1:00AM

Esmay's the play in feature


ARCADIA, Calif. - Esmay rarely gets any respect, and value-minded horseplayers could not care any less. Nine fillies and mares entered Thursday's seventh-race feature at Santa Anita, where Esmay promises to outrun her odds in the 1 1/8-mile turf race.

Though she is the not the only starter qualified to win the optional $80,000 claimer, Esmay is the most likely to slip under the parimutuel radar. That is because her two main rivals scored impressive wins last out and therefore are certain to be overbet. Theater R.N., who is unbeaten, seeks her third win for trainer Bobby Frankel, and Magnificent Val goes for her second straight since joining trainer Jeff Mullins in California.

Six others entered the race, a two-other-than allowance with a purse of $60,000, and their chances depend on the logical contenders misfiring. Theater R.N. has the most potential in the lineup, having started only twice. The filly, by Theatrical, won her Oct. 26 debut at 1 1/8 miles, then overcame trouble to win a first-level allowance at 1 1/4 miles.

"She hasn't beaten anybody, but she's been impressive," Frankel said. Theater R.N. won her first start by three lengths and her second by 1 1/4 lengths.

Frankel admits that Thursday's 1 1/8-mile distance is shorter than preferred. "It's not the [best] choice, but I'm lucky I have a two-other-than to run her in," Frankel said.

Theater R.N. is further compromised by post 9. With the temporary rails at 30 feet, the stretch-runner has much to overcome. David Flores fills in for Pat Valenzuela.

Conversely, Magnificent Val has much in her favor, including a win three weeks ago under similar conditions. The mare got loose on the lead in a two-other-than allowance and raced gate to wire while finishing her final five-sixteenths in a solid 30 seconds. Magnificent Val returns at the same class level, and is eligible because she is in for a claiming price of $80,000. Gary Stevens rides her back.

Beyond odds likely to be higher than that of her main rivals, Esmay fits on class. She drops out of two stakes in which she finished a credible fifth. Esmay, trained by Lou Carno, ran second despite trouble the last time she ran in an N2X, and her inside draw means that jockey Goncalino Almeida can save ground throughout. Esmay has been no lower than 6-1 in seven starts since being imported from Australia.

* Buddy Gil's half-brother Och Tamale makes his debut for Mullins in race 5, a turf sprint for 3-year-old maidens.