06/08/2001 12:00AM

Jolly good show by Imagine in English Oaks

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Epsom, England ? Imagine captured the imagination of Epsom Downs on Friday with a stirring last-to-first triumph in the $512,000 Group 1 English Oaks.

Backed down to 3-1 favoritism over 3.30-1 Flight of Fancy, Imagine handled the step up to 1 1/2 miles with aplomb, and now must be considered the best 3-year-old filly in Europe after also having won the Irish 1000 Guineas.

This was yet another big race victory for John Magnier, his 31-year-old trainer, Aidan O'Brien, and jockey Michael Kinane.

Imagine took the Oaks despite experiencing difficulty coming down the tricky left-handed hill five furlongs from the line. But the trouble she experienced was mild compared to that of runner-up Flight of Fancy, owned by Queen Elizabeth. She was checked twice by Kieren Fallon in the last half mile, and only fell short by 1 1/4 lengths.

But nothing can be taken away from Imagine, who is likely to be a short-priced favorite for the Irish Oaks on July 14.

O'Brien suggested that Imagine might have bigger fish to fry.

"She's so big and strong," he said, "she could handle colts when the time comes."

And that time could be at Longchamp on Oct. 7, in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Mutafaweq wins

Frankie Dettori reminded the crowd at Epsom why he is considered one of the world's best jockeys with a brilliant ride aboard Godolphin's Mutafaweq in the Group 1 Coronation Cup.

With none of his five rivals willing to take the lead, Dettori put Mutafaweq on the front end and stayed there.

Dettori stole a bead on the field rounding Tattenham Corner into the stretch, 3 1/2 furlongs from the line. Richard Quinn brought Wellbeing with what looked like a winning move, but Mutafaweq gutted it out to win by a nose at, getting the 1 1/2 miles in 2:36.65.

"This horse reqally loves firm ground," said Dettori, "and he's a really hard horse to get by. I'm really glad he has a big nose!"

Millenary, the 3-2 choice, just held on for third, four lengths behind Wellbeing, who is co-owned by George Strawbridge, but the three-time Group 1 filly Petrushka looked dull in finishing a distant fifth.

The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot on July 27 could be next on the agenda for Mutafaweq.

Nadia headlines French Oaks

The world of Parisian fashion will be out in force at Chantilly on Sunday to see the best 3-year-old French fillies contest the Group 1Prix de Diane, aka the French Oaks.

Up to 12 petites dames are expected for the 1 5/16-mile classic, among them the winner of the Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary, Nadia.

But Nadia, a Carlos Laffon-Parias-trained daughter of Nashwan, was all out to defeat Group 3 Prix Vanteaux winner Mare Nostrum by a head that day, so the preference is for Spring Oak, the Andre Fabre-trained winner of the Group 3 Prix Cleopatre.

By the promising young Darshaan stallion Mark of Esteem, Spring Oak beat that day the filly who could be her main challenger Sunday, Epistole, a half sister to Group 2 winner Epistolaire. Olivier Peslier will be aboard Spring Oak for owner Sheikh Mohammed.

The John Dunlop-trained Time Away looked smart in taking the Group 3 Musidora Stakes at York last month. Neither she nor Gary Tanaka's $22,000 supplementary entry Baldwina would create much of a surprise in the winners' circle.