04/02/2004 12:00AM

Frankel filly out to prove last not true

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Etoile Montante has a reputation to restore Sunday at Santa Anita, where the 4-year-old filly makes her first start since finishing nowhere as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes four months ago at Hollywood Park.

Ten fillies and mares entered the Grade 3 Las Cienegas Handicap, a 6 1/2-furlong turf sprint in which Etoile Montante is expected to be favored over Dedication, Little Treasure, Polygreen, Fudge Fatale, Stormica, Any for Love, Notting Hill, Petite Histoire, and How Funny.

beat males in a Group 1 in France last fall, and improved her record to 5 for 9. She was sent to California for the Matriarch, but was empty at the eighth pole. New trainer Bobby Frankel offered no excuse other than saying, "She had a hard campaign; she came up at the end of the year." The Matriarch was her seventh start of the season.

Owned and bred by Juddmonte Farms, Etoile Montante returns Sunday with a solid workout pattern at an ideal sprint distance. Frankel expects a top effort first start back. "She's doing really well," he said.

Javier Santiago rides Etoile Montante, the 121-pound highweight.

While Etoile Montante won the Group 1 Prix de la Foret in 2003, that race was won in 2002 by Dedication, who also runs Sunday. Though her career leveled out afterward, Dedication finished third in the 2003 Matriarch and returned to top form on March 13, winning a minor stakes at Gulfstream Park. Trained by Christophe Clemente, Dedication has won 6 of 17 starts. Corey Nakatani rides Dedication, the second highweight at 118 pounds.

If the European form of Etoile Montante can be trusted, she should win the Las Cienegas with a pressing trip. Dedication possesses virtually no sprint speed, but with the rails down Sunday, the closer will have every opportunity.

Notting Hill showed surprising speed in her March 5 comeback, opening a 1 1/2-length lead in midstretch before getting nailed. Trained by Jenine Sahadi, this import from Brazil lost her three previous starts in North America, but may have found her niche as a turf sprinter. Notting Hill will be ridden by Tyler Baze and could find herself on the lead in a race that came up light on pace.

European import Stormica is 2 for 2 since switching to dirt, but returns to grass on Sunday.