10/11/2001 11:00PM

Leading role for Playact

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Before she tried some of the best turf fillies and mares in North America, Playact was going good. Trainer Christophe Clement had sent her out to one win and three seconds in her first four starts after arriving from France, but then she took a thrashing behind her much-heralded stablemate England's Legend in the Grade 2 New York Handicap in July.

Since then, Clement has given Playact a freshening, saving her for a hit-and-run fall campaign before she heads to her winter quarters at Payson Park in south Florida. The filly's return to action comes Sunday at Keeneland, where Playact will be the probable favorite in the $100,000 Dowager Stakes.

Eight fillies and mares will travel 1 1/2 miles on the Haggin turf course, but probably none as quickly as Playact, an Irish-bred who last spring demonstrated a fondness for the course. After easily winning an April 8 allowance, she was barely beaten in the Grade 3 Bewitch Stakes, after which she ran second in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay in June.

For Clement, whose stable is having a blockbuster year with nearly $5 million in earnings, Playact is just one of a formidable group of turf fillies in his barn, along with England's Legend, Penny's Gold, Veil of Avalon, and Voodoo Dancer.

Probably the strongest challengers to Playact are Krisada and Abita.

Krisada, trained by Shug McGaughey, enters off a solid third-place finish in the Robert Dick Memorial at Delaware in July. The Kris S. mare was third in the Bewitch last spring.

Abita, a 5-year-old Dynaformer mare, is winless in four starts this year but did win the last time she raced over this course in April 2000. She is trained by Mike Bell, the former Frank Whiteley assistant whose family has deep roots at Keeneland. Bell's mother, Alice Chandler, is the daughter of the late Hal Price Headley, one of the track's founders.

Abita "is coming around again," Bell said after she improved off a disappointing run in the Modesty at Arlington to finish just 4 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Star Queen in the Dade Turf Classic in her latest start. "We'll try them around three turns and see what happens."

The rest of the field is Silver Land, Clearly a Queen, Bowl of Emeralds, Only to You, and Black Truffle. All starters carry 119 pounds.

Following the nine-race Sunday card, which also includes three allowances, Keeneland goes dark for two days before action resumes Wednesday.