02/05/2002 12:00AM

Las Virgenes is el toss-up

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ARCADIA, Calif. - At one mile, the Las Virgenes Stakes on Sunday is too far for Rich Musique, too short for Habibti, and too soon for Spring Meadow. All of this makes the Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies one of the most interesting stakes of the Santa Anita winter meet. Five to seven starters are expected. The pacesetter is easily identified.

"Anybody who goes with Rich Musique early certainly won't be around at the end," trainer Vladimir Cerin said. "Whoever goes with her will have to think about the consequences of doing that, in which case maybe she can relax on the lead."

One can hope. Rich Musique, 2 for 4, routinely races the opening half in 44 seconds and change. She worked a half-mile Tuesday in 48.40, while likely Las Virgenes favorite Habibti worked five furlongs in 58.80, breezing for trainer Bob Baffert. "She's light, but she looked good," Baffert said. "We haven't been hammering on her. She'll run well, but I think a mile is a little short for her."

Habibti is racing for the first time since her Hollywood Starlet victory in December confirmed that she is the leading 3-year-old filly of winter. Baffert's main concern is keeping weight on the slim filly.

Then there is Bob Hess-trained Spring Meadow, who won her Jan. 6 debut by four lengths and earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. Spring Meadow worked five furlongs Tuesday (1:00.40 breezing) under Corey Nakatani and will attempt the improbable leap from maiden sprint to two-turn Grade 1.

"I think she's very special. We're going to find out how special she is," Nakatani said. "She may not have the experience the other ones have, but she may may make up for it in ability." Others expected include You, Bella Bella, Stonebridge Lady, and Tali'sluckybusride.

Puerto Banus returns on short rest

Puerto Banus will wheel back on short notice Friday in the $75,000 Sham Stakes for 3-year-olds. Puerto Banus finished fourth in a one-other-than allowance Jan. 30 won by Pelirrojo, and Baffert, who trains Puerto Banus, is eager for the colt to gain additional experience, even nine days after his second career start.

"There's no place else to run him," Baffert said, "around here, you don't get too many chances. He was very green [last time] and he got a little tired. This will give him a chance to catch up."

The race gives Baffert a chance to produce a Derby contender, while providing handicappers with a line on how strong - or weak - the Jan. 30 allowance race was. Pelirrojo earned a 92 Beyer; Puerto Banus earned an 89.

Others expected in the Sham include Definite Edge, Cottonwood Cowboy, Hot Contest, northern California shipper U S S Tinosa and, possibly, Shah Jehan.

No starter will enter the race on a more conspicuous pattern of improvement than Hot Contest. The late-running son of Tabasco Cat will be making his fourth career start, and should love a mile and an eighth.

"I wish it was a mile and a quarter," trainer Ray Bell said. "He'll run all day, he'll run from here to Churchill Downs." That would be a familiar place for the colt's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis. They won the Kentucky Derby in 1997 with the Baffert-trained Silver Charm, and in 1999 with D. Wayne Lukas-trained Charismatic.

El Camino Real next for Captain Squire

Captain Squire, trained by Jeff Mullins, is pointed toward the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby on March 9 at Golden Gate Fields following his professional win Saturday in the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby. Mullins said Captain Squire will stay at Santa Anita and train up to the race.

Captain Squire's victory was his third straight, not bad for a horse who won his maiden for a $32,000 claiming tag and followed that with a $62,500 claiming win. "He's a pretty nice horse, if you have one that can go long, it's pretty good property right now," Mullins said.

The 95 Beyer Speed Figure that Captain Squire earned at Turf Paradise is faster than Beyers posted by any of the starters in Friday's Sham.

* Sam's, a popular 9-year-old veteran turf sprinter, has been retired from racing by owner Lajos Kengye. Bred in Argentina and trained throughout his U.S. career by Ron McAnally, Sam's won 9 of 43, and earned $314,492. Kengye said Sam's, a son of Lode, will take up a second career as a stallion.

* Shuffling Kid, who scored a $24.20 upset in his U.S. debut on Sunday at Santa Anita, will be pointed for the Grade 3 Baldwin Stakes on Feb. 24, according to trainer Mike Machowsky. A 3-year-old gelding, he won the downhill sprint by a nose, and will enter the Baldwin with familiarity over the tricky course, though Machowsky said, "back in three weeks is a little quicker than I'd like." Machowsky's fast 3-year-old filly September Secret, who earned an outstanding 99 Beyer winning her debut last June, is nearing her comeback. She has been out with an injured knee.

* Affluent and Royally Chosen, one-two finishers in the El Encino and La Brea Stakes, both worked five furlongs Tuesday, preparing to renew their rivalry Saturday in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes. Affluent worked 1:01.40; Royally Chosen went in 59.60. Others expected in the La Canada are Azeri and Summer Colony.