11/05/2004 12:00AM

French filly cut out for U.S. career

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The first time this reporter encountered Leonard Powell, he was eating a proper French country breakfast at the kitchen table of his parents' farm house in Normandy, his legs dangling from a wooden high chair. He was 2.

This is not meant to embarrass the young trainer. Most of us were 2 once, and if memory serves, young Leo carried his share of the conversation. Even at that age, his French was far better than mine.

The point, probably obvious, is that Powell has been steeped in horseflesh ever since he can remember. His father, American born David Powell, was at one time the French correspondent for Daily Racing Form. To supplement the generous income from such a position, Powell worked his tail off breeding, raising and selling horses, until he eventually became one of the leading producers of steeplechase runners in France. Needless to say, the Form can no longer afford him.

His son, now 28, has chosen to seek his fortune in American racing. In addition to serving as assistant trainer to Bill Currin, Leonard Powell currently trains four horses in his own name. One of them is the talented but unpredictable Labirinto, who caused such a ruckus in the paddock before the 2003 Hollywood Turf Cup, then later finished a fine second in the San Luis Rey at Santa Anita.

"He's back at the track," Powell said, referring to Labirinto's forced vacation through the heart of the 2003 season, "and galloping 3 1/2 miles a day. I hope to run him at Santa Anita this winter. I'm also hoping that maybe he has finally matured."

In the meantime, Powell has high hopes for the 3-year-old French filly Belle Ange, who will be making her U.S. debut on Sunday at Hollywood Park in the $60,000 Audrey Skirball-Kenis Stakes at a mile and one-eighth on the grass.

As $60,000 races go, the Skirball-Kenis offers full value. Sweet Win won the San Clemente Stakes at Del Mar. Lovely Rafaela took the Honeymoon Handicap over the Hollywood course last June. Penny's Fortune romped in the Carmel Handicap on the Bay Meadows grass, then ran second to Mea Domina in the Harold Ramser at Santa Anita. They will all line up on Sunday.

"I would have liked the race to have been a little bit weaker," noted Powell. "For sixty grand, it's very tough."

So, apparently, is Belle Ange. Since her debut in October 2003 - racing for breeder, owner, and trainer Fanny Guedj - she has made 14 starts at nine different French courses, at distances ranging from six furlongs to a mile and three-sixteenths, over all kinds of terrain. She has raced around left-hand turns, right-hand turns and straightaways, and even had a go at the Fibresand dirt course at Deauville last January. In her most recent race, on Sept. 11, she was a close third in a listed event at Le Bouscat, in Bordeaux.

The website comments of European handicapper Nick Mordin sum up the Belle Ange story, posted shortly after her second-place finish in a listed stakes at Deauville in August:

"Belle Ange has been experimented with quite a bit this year," Mordin observed. "As a result there are excuses for several of her recent losses. It looks like she wasn't suited by a slow early pace in a Listed race last time. She was hampered and knocked back to last in an 18 runner Tierce handicap. And she became unbalanced on the downhill section of the course at Longchamp. She'd won four of her other five recent starts and showed how good she is here."

After such a thorough French schooling, Belle Ange should be ready for anything American racing can throw her way. Powell has been pleased to discover that she is taking to her new surroundings like a pro.

"Some horses come here with issues already," Powell said Friday morning between sets. "People sometimes make the change to the U.S. because things are not going right in France. But with the hard surfaces and training regimen we have here, it doesn't help matters.

"So far, I've found this filly to be as good as she could be," Powell added. "She schooled well yesterday and was good in the paddock."

And, according to her trainer, the American style of running should suit her game.

"She always needed pace in her races," Powell said. "Sometimes, they would go the half in 55 [seconds] ahead of her. Understandably, she would get a little rank. Over here, they don't go as fast on the pace as they used to. But you still won't get a half much slower than 49 or 50."

Belle Ange is by the Riverman stallion Ganges, who was trained in France by Francois Boutin and in America by Bill Mott. Of more significance to California fans is the sire of Belle Ange's dam, The Wonder, who won major races on both dirt and turf at Hollywood Park for Charlie Whittingham.

Ancient history, though, when faced with Sunday's challenge. Belle Ange will need to be ready for a top race right off the boat. Powell took one more look at the Skirball-Kenis line-up, then glanced at the entries for the Bien Bien Stakes, a similar race for 3-year-old males the day before.

"You know," he sighed, "it might have been easier to go against the colts."