12/06/2002 1:00AM

Madame Pietra's the boss


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Madame Pietra has essentially become her own boss this year.

Without being asked to meet specific workout times or follow a certain style in races, the 5-year-old Madame Pietra has won two sprint stakes this year for owner Carl Grether and trainer Howard Zucker.

On Sunday at Hollywood Park, she has an excellent chance to win her third stakes in the $70,000 Corona Handicap. Run at six furlongs for fillies and mares, the Corona has drawn a field of six, including Habibti, a leading 2-year-old filly of 2001, and Channing Way, who has won 11 of 16 starts in her career.

Madame Pietra is the likely favorite. She won the Cascapedia Stakes in her last start at Santa Anita on Oct. 31, displaying her customary come-from-behind style.

Although Madame Pietra has run well near the lead - she disputed the pace in the Fantastic Girl Stakes at Del Mar before finishing second - Zucker is convinced she is better as a closer.

"She's a very talented filly. When she's close to the pace and makes the lead, she loses interest," Zucker said. "She thinks the race is over. I think coming a little from off the pace really helps.

"As she's gotten older, she's been able to take her racing a lot better. In the mornings, we let her work the way she wants to instead of making a time."

Madame Pietra will be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, who was aboard in the Cascapedia. There is little instruction from trainer to jockey regarding race tactics, Zucker said.

"We let her drop in where she wants," he said.

Madame Pietra will be chasing the ultra-quick Channing Way and Wild Trickle.

The 4-year-old Channing Way has won four stakes this year. She finished 12th in the California Cup Distaff at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, but rebounded to win an allowance race over 5 1/2 furlongs at Turf Paradise on Nov. 15.

Wild Tickle finished in a dead heat for second in the Safely Kept Handicap over 5 1/2 furlongs on turf on Nov. 17.

Habibti is the 121-pound highweight, but is winless in five starts this year.

The winner of the Del Mar Debutante and Hollywood Starlet Stakes in 2001, Habibti was second in the Las Virgenes Stakes and Santa Anita Oaks earlier this year. Most recently, she finished eighth in the Churchill Downs Distaff Handicap on Nov. 9.

The Corona Handicap marks her first start in a sprint since the 2001 Del Mar Debutante.

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