03/11/2004 12:00AM

Halfbridled makes 2004 debut

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Halfbridled, the undefeated champion 2-year-old filly of 2003, has drawn the rail for her first start of the year in Saturday's $300,000 .

But it may take more than a tough post to prevent her from making a fifth trip to the winner's circle.

Owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, Halfbridled clinched her 2003 championship with a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, overcoming an outside post in a field of 14 to score a convincing win.

Trainer Richard Mandella expects Halfbridled to resume her career on Saturday with the same winning pattern she showed in four starts last year - a stalking trip, a burst to the front in early stretch, and no threat from the opposition in the final furlong.

Last year, those tactics resulted in a maiden win by 4 1/2 lengths in July, a five-length win in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante in August, a victory by 4 1/2 lengths in the Grade 2 Oak Leaf Stakes in September, and a win by 2 1/2 lengths in the Juvenile Fillies on Oct. 25.

"I think my filly will be good and tight the first time," Mandella said. "I think she's in good shape."

Despite the layoff, Halfbridled will be a strong favorite in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, which is run over 1 1/16 miles and has drawn an outstanding field of eight.

Since the Breeders' Cup, two Southern California-based fillies have emerged as challengers to Halfbridled - A.P. Adventure and Hollywood Story, the first two finishers in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 15.

Hollywood Story won the Hollywood Starlet in December, two weeks before A.P. Adventure won her first stakes in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel Stakes here.

Halfbridled was expected to start in the Las Virgenes, but Mandella pulled her from the race a week out because he was not happy with the way she was training.

"I lost a little time," he said. "She got sick. It knocked a little weight off of her. She's just now coming back into her best form, physically."

Gary Stevens will ride Halfbridled for the first time in the Oaks. He replaces Julie Krone, who rode Halfbridled last year, but is sidelined with the lingering effects of an injury suffered last December at Hollywood Park.

Stevens will ride a champion that can lead - she was on or near the lead throughout the Oak Leaf - but is best as a stalker.

"You can put her on the lead early, but I'd prefer she'd settle," Mandella said.

Salty Romance, the runner-up in the Santa Ysabel, and Silent Sighs, a California-bred who has won two restricted stakes, are likely to contribute to the pace. Miss Coronado, who won the Grade 2 Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7, will be close to the front.

Halfbridled is likely to stalk the pacesetters, while A.P. Adventure and Hollywood Story are closers. Halfbridled's ability to wait behind the leaders will be vital, considering her rail post.

A.P. Adventure will not be a factor early. She was sixth in the first quarter-mile of the Las Virgenes, trailed by two lengths at the eighth pole, and rallied to win by a half-length over Hollywood Story. Jockey Alex Solis has ridden A.P. Adventure in both of her stakes wins.

"The first time I rode her, she was kind of lazy," Solis said. "The other day, she was more into the race. She has so much talent."

Trainer Wally Dollase describes A.P. Adventure as a filly with "above average intelligence. When you ask her, she takes off. That's good for a route horse."

While many starters are looking to progress to the Kentucky Oaks, Mandella has not ruled out trying Halfbridled against males. The idea has led to speculation that a victory on Saturday could put her closer to a start in the Kentucky Derby on May 1.

"I think of it once in a while, but it depends on how she comes back," Mandella said of trying males in the Derby. "If she has the same look, it will be very tempting. I hope I'm that tempted."