08/24/2005 11:00PM

Hoping for a deb to come out in front


DEL MAR, Calif. - There are no quiet winners of the Del Mar Debutante. Success in this particular seven furlongs is impossible to hide, which means no matter who takes the prize, expectations will run unnaturally high.

The last two winners - Sweet Catomine and Halfbridled - went on to take the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Eclipse Award as champion of the division. Chilukki, the 1999 Debutante winner who was second in her Breeders' Cup attempt, was a champion as well.

If any of the 11 fillies entered for Saturday's 55th running of the Debutante want to follow in such formidable footsteps, feel free. The race looks wide open on paper.

Charles Cono, for one, sees no reason why his two Debutante fillies can't walk away with the day. He will be represented on Saturday by Mystery Girl and Diplomat Lady, both trained by Chris Paasch.

"You ask me, I think they're probably the best two fillies in the country," said Cono, speaking from his San Diego real estate company office. "Anyhow, we're going to give them a good test."

No single 2-year-old filly has yet to emerge, East or West, to dominate the conversation. Bully Bones was impressive enough in winning the local Sorrento last time out, defeating Landaluce Stakes winner Indian Breeze and Diplomat Lady. Indian Breeze must be respected, along with Wild Fit, a sharp recent maiden winner.

But the young ones can change quickly at this stage of the game. School is very much in session. And even though the Debutante is one of North America's most prestigious races for the division, trainers are allowed to tinker.

Paasch will be adding blinkers to Diplomat Lady's equipment on Saturday, and not because she needs more focus. In fact, Paasch would like her to chill out a little and run her own race.

"She's run twice, and both her riders told me that she would not stop looking at the horse outside of her," the trainer said.

Diplomat Lady is a long-barreled daughter of Forestry with a dark mahogany coat and four white socks. Paasch waxes poetic whenever he gazes upon her wide, graceful shoulders that serve as ample housing for a powerful heart. She cost Cono a cool $400,000 at the Fasig-Tipton select sale of 2-year-olds last February, then won her first start by a nose at Hollywood Park.

In the Sorrento, Diplomat Lady got caught up in the heat of a breakneck pace - including a first quarter in 21.71 seconds - and had nothing left for the final furlong. Jon Court will ride her for the first time on Saturday.

"You'll see a different race from last time," Paasch promised. "I've been training her all along to finish, and that's how Jon will ride her - snatch her right out of the gate and drop six or seven lengths off the pace."

Mystery Girl, a $130,000 purchase last March, would seem to offer the perfect complement to her stablemate. Blessed with natural, easy speed, she even looked fast while laying curled in her stall Thursday morning, enjoying a nap after training. A daughter of Stormy Atlantic, Mystery Girl is a caramel chestnut indelibly marked by a wide, wandering blaze. She was third in the Landaluce as a maiden, then became a winner on July 23, the first Saturday of the Del Mar meet.

"I've turned down big money for both of them," Cono said. "Money I have. What I want to do is win some races."

Cono's money comes from 50 years in the Southern California real estate business. Weathering busts and booms, interest-rate roller coasters and fickle consumer trends, Cono's holdings currently number 4,000 units strong.

"If you know someone in San Diego, chances are they pay me rent," he said with a laugh.

Cono bought his first piece of real estate at the age of 16, in Washington, D.C., then headed west in 1955 when California housing was becoming a modern-day gold rush. There wasn't much time to indulge himself in horse racing.

"When I was younger, I did pal around with a couple of jockeys when we all hopped bells at a hotel," Cono recalled. "I'd go out to Bowie every once in a while."

Cono had a brief fling with Standardbreds in the 1970's, racing them at Los Alamitos, but cooled to the sport. Then, five years ago, he was introduced to Paasch, and a Thoroughbred stable was born.

"I'm just trying to buy good horses, and keep the stable fresh," Cono said. "Compared to racehorses, though, the real estate business is pretty easy. You could buy a two-million-dollar horse, and he could go around the track one time and break his leg. I've had a few disappointments like that."

If nothing else, Cono and Paasch are due. Last Sunday they watched their filly Conveyor's Angel fall a head short of winning a small stakes on the Pacific Classic undercard. On Monday, it was Spencer's Magic giving them a thrill, losing a top-class allowance race by a head to stakes winner St Averil. Then, on Wednesday, Via Rodeo missed winning a tough allowance race by a head and a nose.

"I can always hope for a one-two finish on Saturday," Cono said. "Although the way things have been going, I'll be happy with the 'one.' But if I've got to lose another close one, maybe it can be my own horse that beats me."