08/08/2004 11:00PM

Etoile Montante back west

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DEL MAR, Calif. - After Etoile Montante won her 2004 debut in the Las Cienegas Handicap at Santa Anita in April, trainer Bobby Frankel bypassed the Hollywood Park meeting and sent her east, where she was beaten in stakes at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park.

Wednesday, makes her second California start of the year in the $75,000 Osunitas Handicap at Del Mar.

Owned by Juddmonte Farms, Etoile Montante starts as the 123-pound topweight and is the most accomplished filly or mare in the field of nine. The race is run over 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Last year in France, Etoile Montante won the Group 1 Prix de la Foret over seven furlongs at Longchamp, and two other minor stakes. She made her U.S. debut last fall, finishing 11th in the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Etoile Montante won the Grade 3 Las Cienegas over about 6 1/2 furlongs in her first start of the year. She followed that performance with a nose loss in the Grade 3 Argent Mortgage Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on May 1 and a third in the Grade 3 Just a Game Breeders' Cup Handicap at Belmont Park on June 5.

The Osunitas is restricted to nonwinners of a first-place purse of $50,000 at a mile or farther this year. The Osunitas marks Etoile Montante first start at 1 1/16 miles. Her previous stakes wins came at distances ranging from 6 1/2 furlongs to a mile. Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's assistant trainer, is not concerned with the distance.

"Early in the year, she was aggressive," Ascanio said. "She was kind of a tough filly. Now, she's more relaxed. Maybe she can make one run. I think she'll be all right."

Etoile Montante is a stalker, a style prevalent among several of the entrants. Letra de Cambio, a group stakes winner on turf in Brazil last year, will set the pace, closely followed by Cat Alert, who has won three of her last four starts.

Two other 2003 stakes winners - Makeup Artist and Shalini - are closers trying to reverse recent disappointments.

won the Senorita Stakes at Hollywood Park last year but is winless in three starts this year. She was third in the Grade 3 Royal Heroine Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 3.

won three stakes for statebreds last year, but is winless in two starts this year. She was fifth behind Cat Alert in an allowance race at Hollywood Park on June 30.