06/30/2002 11:00PM

Her will to win is strong

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Gary Tanaka, at home in London earlier in the week, had no trouble reading between the lines. When his trainer, Bobby Frankel, asked if he was coming to town for the Beverly Hills Handicap, Tanaka's next call was to his travel agent.

"I can't remember Bobby asking me that before," Tanaka said not long after his breathless arrival at Hollywood Park last Saturday, about five minutes before post time. "I got the message."

Tanaka, owner of such talented mares as Golden Apples, Snow Polina, Donna Viola, Squeak, and champion Gourmet Girl, has another one perhaps as good, whose name is Peu a Peu. In French, that means "little by little," but Peu a Peu did a lot in a hurry by throwing a scare into the Astra camp, turning what might have been a one-horse Beverly Hills romp into a race to remember.

"That was a little hard on the heart," said Michael Paulson, shaking his head in awe, as he made his way to the winner's circle to greet Astra and her steady companion, Kent Desormeaux.

Astra was bred by Paulson's father, Allen, and now races for the Allen Paulson Living Trust, which is administered by Michael. At the age of 6, Astra spans the eras of father and the 46-year-old son. She won her first major race, the Gamely Handicap in June of 2000, while Allen Paulson was still alive. He died on July 19, 2000.

Simon Bray brought Astra methodically through her conditions and her first 11 starts, of which she won eight. Laura de Seroux, who took over 10 months ago, has now run Astra four times, winning three. Monday morning, back at her San Luis Rey Downs stable, De Seroux was still studying the replay of the Beverly Hills, especially the part near the end when Astra was drifting out, then caught sight of Peu a Peu charging up on her left.

"She always runs with her head slightly cocked and her right shoulder bulging out," De Seroux said, explaining Astra's drift. "I think, with that big body of hers coming around the bend, it's just a matter of centrifugal force."

The Beverly Hills has been run only eight times at 1 1/4 miles, which is a shame, because the 10-furlong course at Hollywood is the most aesthetically pleasing race Hollywood can offer, with its long run down the full length of the chute toward the stands before the field sets off on a series of three turns and two long straights.

Astra's final time of 1:58.56 shaded the stakes record of 1:59.00 set by Estrapade in 1986. De Seroux appreciated the historical significance, since she and her husband, Emmanuel, christened Estrapade for Nelson Bunker Hunt. Estrapade ended up running for Allen Paulson.

"Rue de l'Estrapade is a street in Paris where they once performed public torture," De Seroux noted.

Astra, on a more palatable note, brings to mind nothing but heavens and stars. She has two races left to run - the Beverly D. and the Breeders' Cup Distaff Turf - both of them run at Arlington Park near Chicago. In her only race at Arlington, Astra ran poorly on deep ground in the 2001 Beverly D., her final start for Bray. A worry?

"The soft turf had nothing to do with it," said Bray, now training a public stable."She had an abscess in a foot. Two days after the race, when we got her back to Del Mar, we cut about an eight-millimeter hole in the base of her foot."

Such injuries are par for the course, especially with a mare as big as Astra. De Seroux was amazed at how well she came out of the Beverly Hills, considering that she had to run the final quarter mile in less than 24 seconds to beat Peu a Peu by a neck, giving her eight pounds in the deal.

"After all she's been through, and at this age, here she is ice cold, happy, shiny and bright-eyed," De Seroux said.

Astra also showed a new dimension in the Beverly Hills, coming on again to beat a fresh, younger foe after taking a open lead with less than three-sixteenths to run. Not since her days as a 3-year-old had Astra been given the "1" call at the eighth pole.

Pat Valenzuela dismounted from Peu a Peu and promised that "next time" the result would be different. His confidence must be admired. But the question remains, "How?" Peu a Peu will never get weight again, and she will never have a more vulnerable target that Astra was on Saturday, dawdling on the lead a furlong from home after the front-running Snowflake hit a wall.

"That's the difference, isn't it," De Seroux said. "They do what they have to do. They know what it is to have that margin. It's so . . . intrinsic, isn't it? I know what's happening is pretty special, and I"m enjoying every moment."