09/19/2003 11:00PM

Late rush carries Wonder Again

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Wonder Again took the first step into salvaging what has thus far been a disappointing season with an exhilarating neck victory in Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 Noble Damsel Handicap before 8,830 at Belmont Park.

Under Edgar Prado, Wonder Again had an outside-inside-outside trip before splitting a pair of Todd Pletcher-trained mares in deep stretch to earn her first victory since last year's Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup here on Sept. 8, 2002. Dancal finished second, a neck ahead of stablemate Something Ventured. It was 1 3/4 lengths back to the 9-5 favorite, Dedication.

Trainer Jimmy Toner called Prado's performance aboard Wonder Again "one of the best rides I've ever seen in my life."

Breaking from the outside post in the 11-horse field, Wonder Again raced five wide down the backstretch and was in eighth place while Lentil, under Jose Espinoza, set fractions of 22.46 seconds and 45.49 for the opening half-mile.

Around the turn, Prado took Wonder Again back behind horses and guided her over to the rail, and they advanced steadily into contention along the inside. Bottled up briefly in upper stretch, Prado finally got outside again in midstretch and rallied outside of Something Ventured while Dancal was moving outside of Wonder Again. Wonder Again prevailed in the stirring stretch drive.

Wonder Again, a 4-year-old daughter of Silver Hawk owned by John and Joan Phillips, covered one mile in 1:33.07 over firm turf. She returned $14.20 to win.

"She was parked a bit wide the first part of the race, but I was able to save ground on the turn," Prado said. "When I asked her, she was brave to split horses in the stretch. I think she's back to her old form."

Wonder Again had lost five straight races and was 0 for 4 this year. Toner said he needed to see a performance like Saturday's before he could even think about better races this fall. While Toner has not ruled out a shot at the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Oct. 25, he said he could skip that race and point for one like the $750,000 E.P. Taylor at Woodbine on Oct. 19.

Quantum Merit steals Ashley Cole

Quantum Merit, running back on just eight days' rest, went gate to wire under Richard Migliore to win the $114,700 Ashley T. Cole Handicap for New York-breds by 3 3/4 lengths over longshot World of Wonder. It was one length back to Robbie's Rockin in third.

Quantum Merit, a 4-year-old son of Hansel, was running back just eight days after winning a New York-bred second-level allowance race by 8 1/4 lengths. In the start prior to that, he finished seventh against this same group. Trainer Del Carroll explained that Quantum Merit came out of that race with a pulled or cramped muscle.

On Saturday, Quantum Merit set fractions of 25.05 seconds, 49.18, 1:02.70, and 1:36.01, and he covered the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:47.48. Quantum Merit returned $9.80 as the favorite.

Carroll, who trains Quantum Merit for Joe Gioia's Very Un Stable, said the colt will make his next start in the $150,000 Mohawk Handicap on Oct. 18.