11/21/2005 12:00AM

Lovell steps up her game

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Jack Coady/Coady Photography
Red Bird's Meister (rail) inches past Smile Away to win the Spirit of Texas.

HOUSTON - The careers of trainer Michelle Lovell and her first stakes winner, Red Bird's Meister, are both on the rise. Lovell, a former jockey who began training in 2003, has almost tripled her number of wins this year compared to 2004.

Red Bird's Meister, meanwhile, defeated some of Texas's best sprinters on Saturday night, when he won the $50,000 on the Texas Champions Day card at Sam Houston Race Park.

It was the first stakes win as a trainer for Lovell, and the fourth win in five career starts for Red Bird's Meister. He was making his stakes debut in the Spirit of Texas, which he won by a head. Red Bird's Meister dueled along the inside throughout the six-furlong race, and covered the distance in 1:10.87.

"He gutted it out under pressure," said Lovell. "He was in a tough position. He had to run a little different than we planned. He had to really fight for his position and never got a break.

"I think he has a lot of talent, and he's proven it every time he's run."

Red Bird's Meister ran second at 19-1 in his career debut in July 2004, and one start later rolled to an 11 1/2-length maiden win at Retama Park. He did not resurface again until September 2005 because of a tendon injury, winning his comeback by a romping six lengths in an entry-level allowance for Texas-breds at Retama. From there, Red Bird's Meister defeated open company in an allowance that served as his stepping-stone to the Spirit of Texas.

Lovell on Monday was searching for next-race options for Red Bird's Meister, and said that in the long term, the horse is a candidate for the $40,000 Spring Stakes for Texas-breds at seven furlongs at Sam Houston on March 18.

"There's got to be, hopefully, something in between," said Lovell. "He's fresh and he's feeling good."

Lovell has 32 horses in training at Sam Houston. She and her husband, Casey Lovell, also lease a farm about 20 minutes from the track, where Casey, the son of top Quarter Horse jockey Willie Lovell, breaks young horses. Michelle Lovell rode as Michelle Hanley, and in 1990 was the leading apprentice at Gulfstream.

As a rider, she played a role in the early development of some quality horses, including Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee and Nastique. As a trainer, Lovell has won 29 races from 188 starters this year, compared to 10 wins from 66 starters in 2004.

Lovell can add to her win total on Wednesday night. She has four horses entered at Sam Houston, including Justa Red Bird in the featured eighth, a two-other-than allowance that carries an optional claiming price of $25,000. The 1 1/16-mile turf race is a competitive one, and drew a hard-knocking older rival in Explosive Green.

Justa Red Bird, who is 3, has placed in three stakes. He is versatile as far as pace is concerned, said Lovell.

"He did win both of his races on the dirt fighting for it, and he's run some awesome races coming from behind on the grass," said Lovell, who has given the mount to Omar Rodriguez.

Justa Red Bird and Red Bird's Meister are both owned by Raymond Pollone Sr.

Connally the goal for 'Socialite'

Charming Socialite is getting some time off following his third-place finish in the Spirit of Texas and will return for a spring campaign targeting the $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf at Sam Houston on April 8, said his co-owner and trainer, Bill Pettit.

Charming Socialite has won two stakes on turf this year, his latest the $40,000 Buffalo Bayou over open company at Sam Houston on Nov. 5. He is also a multiple stakes winner sprinting on dirt, and his first stakes goal next year is the Spring Stakes.

"He's pretty versatile," said Pettit. "It really doesn't make any difference what surface or what distance."

Pettit said the Connally is one of several rich stakes that Charming Socialite, one of the top Texas-breds in training, will be shooting for in 2006.

"I've got some big goals for him next year," said Pettit. "I'd like for him to be on the list of 50 Texas-bred [earners] of all-time."

To date, Charming Socialiate has won 9 of 34 starts and $299,510. He is co-owned by Paul Sutton.