05/21/2003 11:00PM

Lack of real speed makes Yerba Buena bewildering

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Strategy could play a key role in Saturday's $150,000 Yerba Buena Breeders' Cup Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile turf race that lacks a bona fide front-runner.

The field of eight fillies and mares is filled with stalkers, one of whom will have to take the lead.

A possible favorite is Turtle Bow, a Group 2 winner in her native France who lost by a neck in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl last fall at Belmont in her U.S. debut.

She had ankle surgery following a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and finished sixth in her comeback in the Grade 3 Wilshire at Hollywood Park last month.

"She's very, very good," trainer Laura de Seroux said. "She's a top-class filly and she's a sounder filly now."

The most likely pacesetter is Notting Hill, a Grade 2 winner in her native Brazil who was fourth in the 1 1/4-mile Grade 2 Santa Barbara in her U.S. debut. She sat second behind a decent pace that day.

Notting Hill has a pair of bullet drills as well as a 59.40-second five-furlong work since that race.

Co-highweight Noches De Rosa was a wire-to-wire winner two starts back in the Santa Ana. Her fractions in that 1 1/8-mile race told the story, though, as she cantered through a 50.20-second half-mile and a 1:13.60 six furlongs.

"There was just absolutely no pace in that race," trainer Richard Mandella said. "Mike Smith was very smart to take the pace, and they couldn't catch him.

"I don't know what the others are like [in the Yerba Buena], but we're not committed to a front-running style."

Snowflake set the pace in last year's Grade 1 Beverley Hills Handicap before fading to seventh. She had never been on the lead before that race, or since.

Local star Lindsay Jean, coming off a win in the 1 1/16-mile Miss America, has shown some early foot. This is her first start at 1 1/8 miles, which has trainer Art Sherman a bit concerned.

"The main thing is, she's going a sixteenth of a mile farther, and I don't want her to move as quick as the other day," Sherman said. "She began around the three-eighths, and I would like to see her go from the three-sixteenths home."

Sherman knows that a wily rider could steal the race.

"I think this will be a jockey strategy-type thing," he said.

"If the pace scenario were such that you could slow it down and have a lot of horse, that would be okay, too."