03/20/2008 11:00PM

The filly Country Star deserves Derby shot

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PHOENIX - Call me crazy. You won't be the first.

Those who know me will tell you I've always been among the biggest critics of those who every winter blab about how this filly or that should try the boys in the Kentucky Derby. To me it's almost always a misguided notion. Think of some of the brilliant females who tried and couldn't be found at the end of the race.

So some will be shocked when they read here that I think trainer Bobby Frankel should seriously consider targeting the Kentucky Derby with Country Star.

I know, I know - she hasn't even run this year. So those who insist on three preps before the Derby probably are laughing out loud. After all, following her huge Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet win in December she became ill at Santa Anita. She's supposed to make her 2008 debut in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland April 5.

But just a few years ago everyone said you couldn't win the Derby off more than a four-week hiatus. Then Barbaro came along, and after five weeks off he made one of the greatest runs ever to win the roses. Just a few years ago everyone said you had to have at least three preps to win the Derby. Then Street Sense came along last year, and off two preps powered home an easy winner at Churchill. Just a few years ago everyone said a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner or juvenile champion couldn't win the Derby. Again, Street Sense shattered those beliefs. Things change.

So why can't a horse win the Derby off just one prep? Well, that surely would be bucking a lot of history and some common sense, and there are serious issues about whether one race gives a horse enough of a foundation to handle the Derby's 1 1/4-miles. Toss in that we're talking about a filly, and many are full of doubt, I'm sure.

But anyone who saw Country Star's three 2007 races knew they were looking at something special.

Did you miss them? Do yourself a favor and check them out. She rallied for second in her debut on the turf at Belmont Sept. 20 and that proved the perfect primer. She went into the Grade 1 Alcibiades at Keeneland Oct. 5 as a maiden, but the betting public didn't treat her that way, sending her off at 4-1 in a big field. The way Country Star finished made 4-1 look like Christmas 2o1/2 months early. Frankel decided to skip the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, citing his filly's inexperience, and instead waited for the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet Dec. 15. In the Starlet, Country Star swooped past rivals on the far turn and in a matter of a couple strides the race was over. Her Grade 1 Beyer Speed Figures of 78 and 93 may not get the pulse racing, but the visual impression of her striding out powerfully does. She now has handled turf, Polytrack, and Cushion Track, so there's every reason to believe she'll handle the traditional dirt at Churchill Downs.

Not only is Country Star a potentially remarkable filly, this might be the year to take a shot. We're in late March, and instead of the males solidifying their spots among the Derby elite, their failures are raising more questions.

Can you look at the names at the top of the Derby Watch list and believe any of one of them has a stranglehold on the roses?

War Pass just threw in a terrible race, and you have to wonder about his Derby prospects. Pyro has certainly looked great, but there's no getting around the fact he hasn't run that fast. Into Mischief got hurt. Colonel John and El Gato Malo are the West's best, but neither can yet be considered another Silver Charm or Free House. The buzz regarding Denis of Cork continues to increase, but as good as he's looked, who has he beaten? Can you really see Tale of Ekati or Monba or Majestic Warrior or Anak Nakal winning the Derby off what they've done this year?

Country Star is proven going long and has already handled different surfaces. A daughter of Empire Maker, she's bred to prefer going even longer. In a year with so many question marks surrounding the top males, could it be they're ripe for the plucking? Yes it could, particularly when you're talking about a special filly and a man who knows how to train with a specific race in mind.

Her season debut in the Ashland next month should tell us a whole lot more.

One to watch from Mandella barn

He hasn't recorded a work in the United States yet, but later this year you may hear big things about a horse named Matto Mondo.

Dick Mandella, who has trained such South American beasts as Gentlemen, Memo, Malek, Sandpit, and Puerto Madero, has a new candidate in his barn - Matto Mondo, who was brought to the U.S. in December and is getting acclimated to his new surroundings.

A son of Sir Cat, Matto Mondo was remarkable in Chile. He has won 4 of his 6 starts, all last year at 2, including a 16-length win in the Grade 1 Clasico Alberto Vial Infante to rank as the country's top juvenile colt. He also won the Grade 1 Clasico Polla de Potrillos, though he ended his Chilean career on a down note, running seventh in the Grade 1 Club Hipico de Santiago Oct. 5.

Consider yourself warned.