01/18/2002 12:00AM

Look beyond Affluent in El Encino

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PHOENIX - Flute, Fleet Renee, and Victory Ride have not returned. Unbridled Elaine is an enigma. And Xtra Heat figures to stick to racing around one turn.

So Sunday's Grade 2 El Encino at Santa Anita is more than just your ordinary $150,000, 1 1/16-mile event - there's something riding on this race for 4-year-old fillies. It's nothing less than current top status in the division.

The current leader is Affluent. This Ron McAnally filly has done something that few have, of either sex or any age. She has a Grade 1 turf route win (Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup) and a Grade 1 dirt sprint win (La Brea). That shows her versatility and ability. She goes into the El Encino very much the favorite.

But there are hurdles. The turf successes have little bearing on this race. When she won the seven-furlong La Brea she got a dream pace set-up - the speed horses went ballistic early and caved in late. Speedsters Above Perfection, Royally Chosen, and Love at Noon went hell-for-leather. Their splits of 21.92 seconds, 44.27, and 1:08.60 left them ripe for the plucking.

Love at Noon was also coming back from a splint injury and long layoff in that race. Trainer Bob Baffert was downright giddy about her performance.

"She's a good filly. She ran a great race, she was out chasing a pretty fast pace, and everything kind of buckled up," Baffert said. "She needed that race, she was coming off a long, long layoff, I had to kind of rush her to get her ready, and she still ran great."

Love at Noon completed her prepparations for Sunday's El Encino Tuesday with a bullet 59.20 five-furlong drill.

A Kentucky-bred by Afternoon Deelites, Love at Noon has won two of five starts for $120,435, and has finished no worse than third in three graded stakes attempts since winning a first-condition allowance event at Churchill Downs last May. And for those of you who may have forgotten, Love at Noon beat Affluent on the square in the Princess at Hollywood last spring.

The reason? Tactical speed. In the La Brea she used her speed. It just wasn't tactical. There's no reason to think she's going to sizzle early in the El Encino. Royally Chosen may be even quicker, and her connections are talking about slowing things down to save something for the end of the race. So the pace may be the opposite of the La Brea's. Love at Noon can stalk Royally Chosen, jump on her turning for home, and get the first run on Affluent. Should Love at Noon be able to press a moderate half in 46 and change she can have a ton in reserve.

Royally Chosen won't lay down. She showed in the La Brea that she has quality. Trainer Bruce Headley is expecting another good one.

"Hopefully, without that filly of Darrell Vienna's [Above Perfection] in there pushing mine so hard, she'll have some kick left," said Headley. "She's ready to run a big one again."

Royally Chosen completed El Encino preparations by drilling seven furlongs in 1:26.40 Tuesday.

Sure, Affluent may simply be the better filly. But since she will be 7-5 or so, give the upsetters, particularly Love at Noon, a long, long look.

San Marcos

I've written that I'm excited about the prospects of Lord Flasheart. Well, we'll get to see if he is the new king of the turf distance set in Monday's Grade 2 San Marcos Handicap. That 1 1/4-mile event is his second race after an 18-month layoff, and it will hardly be an easy assignment.

Yet the way Lord Flasheart blasted onto our radar screen Dec. 30 in his comeback gave every indication he could make this look easy despite the company. In a mile classified allowance race he sat well back early, then sailed home to win going away.

His Beyer Speed Figure was a heady 108, and he dusted Argentine Horse of the Year Straight Flush and other talented foes.

The competition will be tougher Monday, no doubt. Carleton F. Burke winner Cagney is expected to be back. Irish Prize, one of the best milers anywhere and winner of the Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap for the second year in a row about two hours after Lord Flasheart's big race, will try to stretch his talent over 10 furlongs. His San Gabriel Beyer? 105. So he's no slouch.

But both have issues - Cagney returns from a poor Japan Cup try, and Irish Prize tries a long trip.

Those two have questions to answer against a potential superstar.