02/15/2002 12:00AM

Good spot to take a stance against Astra


PHOENIX - In the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," someone tells Indiana Jones that the treasure has almost been found. Jones replies, "That's usually when the ground falls out from underneath your feet."

A strong comparison can be made to the stakes mare Astra. Last summer she was on the verge of finding her treasure. The filly and mare turf division was pretty much at her feet. She ventured to Arlington for the Grade 1 Beverly D.

Then the floor fell away. Before they had gone five strides she was done. She could barely stand up under the bog-like conditions of the Arlington course, which winner England's Legend handled with ease. Astra was never in the race.

What's worse, she came out with an abscess in her left front foot. She went to the bench and wasn't seen again.

Astra makes her long anticipated return in Monday's Grade 3 Buena Vista at a mile on the turf at Santa Anita, but there remain more questions than answers. Has she fully recovered? Isn't this race too short? Is this simply a test to see if she can stand the rigors of top racing with an eye on next month's Grade 2 Santa Ana?

But if the best of Astra shows up, then the others in the Buena Vista are in trouble. Of course, just a couple weeks ago I said if the best of Lido Palace shows up in the San Antonio the others are in trouble. But we didn't see the best of Lido Palace. It's quite possible the same thing happens to Astra.

Like Lido Palace in the San Antonio, Astra doesn't need to win this race to prove anything. Odds are trainer Laura de Seroux would be happy with a strong finish from her. Considering that, the short price on Astra, and the current fitness edge held by some solid competitors, the Buena Vista is an excellent opportunity to hunt around for a price play. Here are some candidates:

Old Money: Her reputation in Australia was lofty, and she showed why she earned it in her United States debut at Santa Anita on Jan. 16. She looked absolutely brilliant winning a strong allowance race, giving every indication she can more than hold her own with stakes foes.

Unlike Astra, she has a big race under her belt over this course at this distance. As the likely second choice at around 3-1, she's extremely attractive.

Paga: She won her U.S. debut at Del Mar in the Osunitas, then shipped to The Meadowlands in September for the Grade 3 Violet. She ran well but finished third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths.

Trainer Richard Mandella gave her time off. She resurfaced opening week in the Grade 3 Monrovia down the hillside turf course, and, as the 2-1 favorite, roared home to win going away. This group is likely to be tougher, but the mile is certainly right in her wheelhouse.

And the trend for Mandella has been unmistakable - once he gets his South American imports on the right track they tend to stay there, rattling off big effort after big effort. In the 7-2 range, she is awfully playable.

Veil of Avalon: She's the new shooter, and her trainer, Christophe Clement, certainly knew what he would be tackling when he came to Southern California. Back East she was rock-solid, finishing third in the Grade 2 Galaxy at Keeneland in October, winning the Solo Haina at Calder in November, then coming back in the Grade 3 De La Rose at Gulfstream and gamely taking a nose decision from crack filly Snow Dance. Veil of Avalon has missed the tri just once in her last 10 starts and a mile is probably her best distance.

She originally raced in Europe, shipped to Florida last March and ran big right off the bat, then shipped to Kentucky, New York, Kentucky, and Florida again without losing her form. Doesn't it figure she can handle the trip west, too? She figures in the 6-1 range and a case can certainly be made.

Blue Moon: Of the four spoilers, she is likely to be the biggest risk, figuring somewhere in the 10-1 to 12-1 range. Her price will go up because of her so-so sixth in November's Grade 2 Las Palmas over this course at 1 1/8 miles. But trainer Ron Ellis said she came out of there with a foot problem, and it was probably bothering her that day as she kept trying to get out during the race.

Ellis has given her time off since and she has worked well. Ellis isn't one to waste starts. She was good enough be second in the 2000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup and has Group 3 stakes-placed status in France. So, quality isn't so the issue. Is she ready for her best? Ellis wins at a high percentage, and deserves the benefit of the doubt.

So there are plenty of options if you don't think Astra's short price is worth the risk. Old Money looked super winning and figures to be a must-use in the exotics. And while I like Paga and Blue Moon, there is the nagging suspicion they may be a smidge behind the others, at least right now.

That leaves Veil of Avalon. She fires every time, and considering that Clement surely had options back East, the fact that he has chosen this spot speaks volumes. I will box her and Old Money, using Paga and Blue Moon underneath in the tri's, and hope Astra is a race away.