03/08/2002 12:00AM

This Margarita looks like a turf race

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PHOENIX - Sunday's Grade 1 Santa Margarita is at 1 1/8 miles on dirt, but it is shaping up like a turf race.

The pace figures to be moderate at best, and many in the field figure to try to come home strong. And if it looks like it's going to be run like a turf race why not bet a turf horse to win it?

Since Manistique left the scene there really has not been a dominant older dirt female in the West. The time might be ripe for a new shooter to come in. And who better than trainer Richard Mandella to try the surface switch?

Just last week Mandella moved turf horses Kudos and Cagney to dirt for the Santa Anita Handicap, and they responded by finishing third and fifth. He has made his mark taking South American horses, many of whom excelled on turf, and even the occasional European and transforming them into top dirt runners in the U.S. (See Gentlemen, Siphon, Puerto Madero, Malek, Sandpit, and Dare and Go). He now tries with the crack mare Alexine.

Alexine will make her main track debut in the Santa Margarita, but jockey Brice Blanc sees that as no deterrent.

"She's been working very well [on dirt]," Blanc said Wednesday after Alexine worked four furlongs on a fast main track in 49.20 seconds. "She seems like she likes it in the mornings, and Richard Mandella is a good trainer. He knows what he's doing."

You bet he does. And it's not like he's bringing a knife to a gunfight, either. Alexine has plenty of quality, though it has only been displayed on turf. She was third in her last start, the Grade 3 Brown Bess at Golden Gate Feb. 2, but has hobnobbed with some of the turf elite. Alexine has seven wins in 17 starts and earnings of more than $300,000.

The main problem so many turf horses have when moving to dirt is the race's internal fractions. Dirt races usually have more horses with early speed and fewer with a late kick. Turf horses often have to use too much early to maintain their position on dirt, leaving them without enough fuel for their usual late kick.

Alexine has some tactical turf speed, and what she may find in the Santa Margarita is a pace scenario that doesn't make her work too hard to keep up. In fact, it could be just the opposite. When Favorite Funtime went wire to wire in the Feb. 17 Santa Maria, a prep for this race, she was able to cruise early through splits of 48.07 and 1:12.30. For this caliber of horse, that's walking. It's little wonder no one was able to get to her. But since the race was run very much like a turf race, Verruma's "late turn of foot," which she transferred from the turf for her dirt debut, nearly got here there, falling just a head shy of Favorite Funtime.

The pace scenario looks awfully similar in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Margarita, and turf horses like Alexine and Verruma will have another sixteenth of a mile to work with.

There could be one fly in the ointment: Spain.

Winner of the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff, she may not be what she was, but she's not going to go down without a fight. That might manifest itself not at the finish, but much earlier.

"She went too easy; nobody went with her," jockey Victor Espinoza said of Favorite Funtime in the Santa Maria. Espinoza's mount was Spain, who finished fourth, beaten five lengths. "I think there will be more pace this time, which is good for me," Espinoza said. "In her last race, the fractions were so slow I almost put her on the lead."

In other words, if someone doesn't pressure Favorite Funtime earlier, expect Espinoza to be more aggressive. That might turn a slow early/fast late race into a slow early/fast middle/slow late race, and that would hurt the turf-style runners like Alexine and Verruma.

Still, you can't worry too much about that. If the horses run the way they usually do, Favorite Funtime will be on the lead going slow. Spain, Alexine and Azeri will be stalking. Likely favorite Printemps will sit back and try to make one big run.

So Alexine will not only benefit from not having to work too hard early to keep position, but her own late speed will give her first run on Printemps. If Printemps is asked for more early by jockey Chris McCarron, he risks not having enough for the stretch run.

Either way, Alexine has a lot of assets, not the least of which are likely odds of around 6-1.