08/24/2001 12:00AM

La Vida Loca favored in Flawlessly

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Just because Saratoga and Del Mar are the centers of the racing world every summer does not mean that Pat Byrne has fallen off the map.

In fact, Byrne traveled to Del Mar last month to run La Vida Loca, a new acquisition for Robert Sangster. Otherwise, Byrne has been spending most mornings with his 20-horse string in the quiet environs of Churchill Downs, "sitting here firing some shots at Ellis Park and Arlington," he said Friday.

On Sunday, Byrne, who in 1997 missed winning the Eclipse Award for top trainer by a single vote, will be at Arlington with La Vida Loca. The goal is to get a nice prep in before the

Sept. 15 Pucker Up, a Grade 3 race Byrne hopes will earn the filly an invitation to the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland on Oct. 13.

La Vida Loca, to be ridden by Shane Sellers, is entered against six other 3-year-old fillies in the $60,000 Flawlessly Stakes. Before Byrne assumed her training, La Vida Loca won three times from four starts for Bill Mott, including a win in the Edgewood Stakes at Churchill in May.

"We went to Del Mar with her," said Byrne, alluding to the July 29 San Clemente Stakes, "because it was a Grade 2 flat mile, and we thought she could handle the company." After La Vida Loca, the 7-5 favorite, made a bold move before flattening out to finish third, jockey Gary Stevens told the trainer he "maybe could have even won the race if he'd just sat, sat, sat," said Byrne. "But that's horse racing."

Byrne said he briefly thought about running La Vida Loca back in the Aug. 18 Del Mar Oaks, but "the race came back in three weeks, and that was the bigger pill," he said. In the Flawlessly, La Vida Loca, an Irish-bred by Caerleon, will have had an extra eight days of rest while facing far easier company.

Because of her impressive credentials, La Vida Loca figures as a heavy favorite, although Byrne clearly remembers the last horse he saddled at Arlington: Pass Rush, a promising 2-year-old who was narrowly beaten as a huge favorite in the Gilded Time Stakes here Aug. 16.

"We're running him in the Cradle Stakes," said Byrne, referring to the River Downs showcase on Sept. 3.

The Flawlessly, named for the two-time champion turf mare who was awarded victory in the 1993 Beverly D. by disqualification, is carded as the eighth of 10 Sunday races on a program that begins at 1 p.m. Central.

The undercard includes the $25,000 Windy City Dash (race 3), a 400-yard sprint for Quarter Horses. Two allowance races also are carded.

o Feature races here next weekend are the $75,000 Top Flight Stakes on Saturday and the $100,000 Sea o' Erin Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf Monday. Honest Deceiver and Typhoon Bertie are among the top 2-year-old fillies named to the six-furlong Top Flight while Galic Boy and Orleans Road rank among the top older turf horses nominated to the one-mile Sea o' Erin.