06/15/2004 11:00PM

Essence will need to improve

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The winners are supposed to be easier to find in small fields. But when half the card includes fields with six starters or fewer - like Friday night at Hollywood Park - the risk typically outweighs the potential rewards. Friday-night bettors can count on low payoffs on the winners.

First post is 7:05 p.m., and the first three races have six-horse fields. The first two races are sprints for 3-year-olds - a $40,000 claimer at six furlongs, followed by a $16,000 claimer at 7 1/2 furlongs that goes as race 2. By race 3, a route for maiden special-weight, bettors may be accustomed to single-digit payoffs.

The feature race on the card is race 7, and it attracted five fillies and mares. The 1 1/16-mile race is a nonwinners-of-one-other-than with a $50,000 purse. The entrants are Harbor Blues, Essence, You I Love, Dolly Wells, and Thunder's Echo.

Because she has raced only three times, Essence has the most upside potential. A 3-year-old trained by Bob Baffert, was sired by Gulch and was begging for a route of ground when Baffert stretched her out to two turns after two even-paced sprints. Bettors were hardly fooled, and Essence was bet down to 6-5 favoritism. Ridden by Corey Nakatani, Essence pressed a slow pace, challenged for the lead into the lane, and won by 1 1/4 lengths.

It was not the type of maiden win that suggests an allowance victory is imminent. That is because Essence earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 78, far below the first-condition par. In summer at Hollywood Park, the first-condition allowance par for fillies and mares is 90. Essence would need to improve some 12 points to win the race. Of course, the field for the race-7 feature is ordinary, and it may not require a 90 to win.

Nakatani rides Essence again, and she does have room to improve in her fourth career start. Her rivals include Harbor Blues, a front-runner who could be dangerous in a small field. , trained by Marcelo Polanco, chased hot fractions last time and finished fifth on grass. She returns to the main track Friday and has a chance to steal it out front.

You I Love finished sixth, beaten six lengths, in her most recent start for trainer Darrell Vienna. The Friday-night feature is just her fourth career start. Dolly Wells finished fifth in her U.S. debut, her first start since she was imported from South America. She can improve. Thunder's Echo has been primarily a sprinter throughout her career, but fits in a small field.