07/18/2003 12:00AM

How good is Wild Spirit? We'll find out

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PHOENIX, Ariz. - When Bobby Frankel first got Wild Spirit from Chile, some from her native country told him she might turn out better than Lido Palace. Frankel probably rolled his eyes, and said, "Yeah, right."

After all, Lido Palace won the Grade 1 Whitney and Grade 1 Woodward (beating eventual BC Classic winner Tiznow) in 2001. In 2002, he won the Woodward again and won the Grade 2 Clark. He ended up 11 for 23 with earnings of more than $2.7 million. That set the bar high for Wild Spirit.

But after Wild Spirit toyed with foes in the Grade 2 Shuvee at Belmont May 17 in her United States debut, it seems those Chileans know what they're talking about.

In Sunday's Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, Wild Spirit may show she's the biggest threat to the Horse of the Year Azeri's filly and mare crown.

Wild Spirit, who because of being bred in the Southern Hemisphere is really more a 3-year-old than a 4-year-old, faces some of the game's top fillies and mares in the 1 1/4-mile race. Wild Spirit will take on Summer Colony, the defending champ, winner of the Molly Pitcher last time out, and the only horse to beat Azeri; multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady, who gave Azeri fits in the Apple Blossom in early April; and Mandy's Gold, a Grade 1 winner who beat Summer Colony in the Grade 3 Pimlico BC Distaff on Preakness week.

Still, anyone who saw the Shuvee came away greatly impressed with Wild Spirit, and the Shuvee was no weak spot. Wild Spirit's stablemate, multiple Grade 1 winner You, was favored. Also in the race were Grade 1 winners Raging Fever and Nonsuch Bay, and graded stakes winner Smok'n Frolic. Wild Spirit sat just behind the speed, looked as though she was going to run over the leaders coming into the lane, then swung out and blasted on by. She won by more than three, and it could have been more.

Wild Spirit was to come back in a race in June, but a case of hives forced her to miss some time. Apparently she's over the illness. Her works look very much like they did before the Shuvee. Jerry Bailey, who seems to get the best of the best Frankel mounts, takes the call.

The distance of the Delaware Handicap should suit Wild Spirit, too. Wild Spirit won a Group 1 race over the boys at 1 3/16 miles in Chile and also won a Group 1 at 1 1/4 miles over girls.

Then there are questions concerning Wild Spirit's three main foes. Summer Colony obviously likes the track and distance, but her Beyer Figures indicate her form has declined from last year. Last spring and summer, her Beyer pattern looked like this: 110-105-101-107. In four starts since last October, she has earned Beyers of 87, 76, 86, and 94. And when she won this race last year, she beat local Your Out and the nice filly Two Item Limit - neither of whom would likely get close in this year's event.

Take Charge Lady's run in the Apple Blossom, in which she was caught by Azeri in the last stride, was spectacular, but could it have taken its toll? She came out of the race with a bruised foot and ran well in her comeback, the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps June 21, but she was no match for the Frankel-trained Sightseek, who beat her by five. Like Summer Colony, Take Charge Lady isn't running as fast as she was last year. She also has never run 1 1/4 miles.

Mandy's Gold won the Grade 1 Ruffian at Belmont last summer, but may be just a smidge below the best. She was third in the Phipps and Apple Blossom, and wasn't a real threat in either. Her best races and three triple-digit Beyers all came when she raced around one turn in New York. She hasn't hit the century mark on the Beyer scale since.

What it adds up to is this: There is reason to suspect that Take Charge Lady, Summer Colony, and Mandy's Gold aren't as good as they were last year. Wild Spirit, on the other hand, may well be coming into her own.

If that's the case she's a great play here at a decent price (3-1).