04/23/2003 12:00AM

Hawthorne: Alexine or Rhiana?

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Alexine ran almost too good to lose in the Santa Lucia Handicap at Santa Anita on March 30, closing along the rail to finish a game second.

Rhiana challenged many of the nation's best fillies and mares in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 5, and finished fifth, seven lengths behind Horse of the Year Azeri.

The two mares are the leading contenders in Friday's $100,000 Hawthorne Handicap, the first graded stakes of the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, which began on Wednesday.

The Grade 3 Hawthorne drew a field of six and is the third race on a nine-race program that begins at 7:05 p.m. The field also includes Keys to the Heart, Meguial, Se Me Acabo, and Styler.

Meguial, who placed in Group 1 stakes in Argentina last year, is likely to set the pace. She won an allowance race in her U.S. debut on Feb. 26, but was seventh as the favorite in the Santa Lucia. A win by Keys to the Heart, Se Me Acabo, or Styler would be an upset.

Much of the betting will focus on Alexine and Rhiana, who are seeking to end lengthy losing streaks in the Grade 3 Hawthorne.

Alexine won the 2002 Santa Lucia and then finished second by a nose in the Hawthorne Handicap last April, her final start of 2002.

The 7-year-old Alexine has made two starts this year. She finished seventh in a turf sprint on Jan. 29, missed time due to a cough, and then returned and ran well in the Santa Lucia.

"I think she's stepped it up a notch since that race," trainer Richard Mandella said. "She had a little cough and I think that last race will do her good."

Rhiana has not won in four starts this year, but was third in the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita in February. She was considered for the Santa Lucia, but trainer Dan Hendricks and owners John and Allegra Ernst opted to try for the $500,000 Apple Blossom.

"She got beat seven lengths by the best filly to race in the last 10 years," Hendricks said, praising race winner Azeri. "We were just happy to have a horse in a race as prestigious as the Apple Blossom. The owners had a ball."

Rhiana is only the second racehorse that the Ernsts have owned. On Friday, the 6-year-old Rhiana has an excellent chance to become their first stakes winner.