09/17/2003 11:00PM

Lots on line for Wonder Again

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ELMONT, N.Y. - There is still time for Wonder Again to make a name for herself this fall among the grass fillies, but she has to get started in the right direction. That is why her people are placing such importance on her engagement in Saturday's $150,000 Noble Damsel Handicap. It offers an opportunity for her to substantiate the claim that her talent is considerably better than her record.

That wasn't a problem last season at 3. She won her maiden impressively at Belmont Park in June, going 1 1/16 miles. An attractive bay daughter of Silver Hawk, bred and owned by John Phillips of Darby Dan Farm and his mother, Jan G. Phillips, (daughter of the late John Galbreath), Wonder Again ran off a string of four consecutive victories that included the Lake Placid Handicap at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup Handicap at Belmont's fall meeting.

With these credentials behind her and the seasoning that comes with experience, she was the apple of trainer Jimmy Toner's eye as he prepared for the opening of the 2003 campaign. Her works were smart, and she had an excellent effort in the Beaugay Handicap, rallying to miss by a half-length. That performance sent her off the favorite in the Just a Game, but it didn't happen.

"She caught a soft turf course," Toner recalls. "There was traffic on the inside and she had to wait. She wound up third. She didn't get as much out of her first two starts as we planned, and it told on her in the Diana at Saratoga. She is fine physically, but things have not gone her way. It happens.

"She is a quality filly," he said. "Sooner or later it will come together for her, but better sooner, like this weekend. She's got the pedigree. The dam is a full sister to Grass Wonder, who was a 2-year-old champion in Japan a few years ago. This line goes back to Tribulation, who won us a Queen Elizabeth at Keeneland in 1993."

Tribulation, in turn, goes back to a branch of the Soaring family that proved so successful for the Galbreaths, who have been outstanding breeders. Soaring's daughter Soaring Softly won 7 of her 8 starts in 1999, including the Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

"We've always had a high regard for mares at Darby Dan," John Phillips said by phone from the Keeneland sales. "We strongly believe we've got a good one in Wonder Again, and if she continues in good health, we plan to bring her back next season.

"We're very excited at the farm, because Aldebaran will be standing at stud here next spring," Phillips continued. "He has the highest Beyer Figure in the country up to a mile and is one of the most consistent horses in training. In 24 starts he was in the money 23 times. He is the most important horse retired to the farm since Roberto, more than 30 years ago."

Aldebaran, winner of more than $1.5 million, is particularly attractive to Phillips as a sire prospect for his bloodlines. He is by Mr. Prospector, already demonstrated as an effective cross with Roberto mares. Wonder Again, incidentally, is a grandson of Roberto, who won an eventful Epsom Derby for Darby Dan.

A strong field has been drawn for the Noble Damsel, and Wonder Again has her work cut out for her. Stylish, for example, comes off three consecutive stakes wins, and there are others with proven ability. But none of her opponents has as much at stake and none has a bigger debit account when it comes to racing luck.