06/06/2002 11:00PM

Fun House finally finds her niche


PHOENIX - Racing is a game of changing expectations. A perfect example is the talented 3-year-old filly Fun House, who figures to be one of the favorites in Sunday's Manhattan Beach at 5 1/2 furlongs on the Hollywood turf course.

Bred to be precocious and fast, she did not disappoint in her debut for trainer Ron McAnally, winning by three easy lengths last December, looking very much like a filly who could give You and Habibti trouble.

Not so fast. On New Year's Eve at Santa Anita, as the even-money favorite first time against winners, Fun House was nowhere, finishing a dull sixth. You've seen it a million times - horse kills maidens, gets hammered first time against winners, and disappears. Another overrated maiden winner.

Not so fast. Fun House was next introduced to turf going 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on Feb. 1 and she responded nicely winning by a length at 4-1. She was 7-1 against some nice stakes fillies in the La Habra down the hill March 1, and while she didn't win she was an excellent second. It looked as though she really was good.

Not so fast. McAnally sent Fun House down to Oaklawn for the Grade 2 Fantasy at 1 1/16 miles on dirt. Sent off as the 5-2 second choice, she never really got involved, finishing fifth, beaten over nine lengths.

But McAnally knew he had a good filly; he figured that she was just not as comfortable going longer than a sprint. So he brought her back in the Grade 3 Railbird at seven furlongs at Hollywood on May 18. She finished third beaten more than six lengths, but the effort was still decent. The winner, September Secret, is very fast and she won by four earning a 95 Beyer.

Maybe McAnally was half-right. Fun House wants to sprint. But maybe dirt is a problem for her. After all, her only good dirt race was her debut, when she was much better than the opposition.

Sunday she's back on turf, and sprinting. That's a combination that could certainly reap dividends for you at the windows.

Is Xtra Heat vulnerable?

Calling her special isn't nearly enough.

Xtra Heat, like Serena's Song a few years ago, is a throwback. She dances all the dances, and always brings her "A" game. Her record of 20 wins in 25 starts is rare a the graded stakes level, and her May 12 win in the Grade 2 Genuine Risk at Belmont showed she suffered no ill effects from her March trip to Dubai.

She goes into Sunday's Grade 2 Vagrancy at Belmont an overwhelming favorite. After all, fillies have only been able to beat her going seven furlongs, and it took a huge run by the enormously talented Victory Ride in last summer's Test to do that.

The Vagrancy is at 6 1/2 furlongs, but that's still something of a test for Xtra Heat since that added half-furlong can add up to a lot. There's another issue: She is giving away a big chunk of weight. Could that, combined with the extra ground make her a little soft coming down the wire?

It's not likely; she probably has enough margin for error. But this is a betting game and at 1-2 it isn't exactly a sure thing. There are other decent sprinting fillies ready to take shots at her. Raging Fever hasn't beaten her before, but she is sure to run a good race, so Xtra Heat can't just show up and take home the check. La Galerie saw nothing but Xtra Heat's tail in the Genuine Risk, but she's no pushover and maybe the slightly longer distance will help her.

But there are two other fillies who deserve a long look if you're thinking that maybe Xtra Heat's number is up. Shine Again, trained by upset king H. Allen Jerkens, looks to take another run at Xtra Heat. She finished second to her in the Genuine Risk, but was still coming at the end and was beaten by just a length. She will appreciate the added ground and weight edge. She was 7-2 last time; she figures to be in the 4-1 range again.

Then there's Celtic Melody. She had her number put up in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on the Derby undercard, as she was interfered with in the final furlong while making a big late rally. She was still beaten just a head in that seven-furlong race and comes into Sunday's race sharp. Celtic Melody will also be getting significant poundage from Xtra Heat, and with odds in the 7-1 range deserves a long look.

Xtra Heat is special indeed, but don't assume that a search for an upsetter is an exercise in futility. She's the deserving heavy favorite, but favorites can lose and there are others coming into this race rounding into peak form. That's never a bad thing when you're going against a huge favorite getting nice odds.