05/14/2004 12:00AM

Melba Jewel ready for Sandia's Flicka

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AUBURN, Wash. - When the local 3-year-old stakes fillies first got together in the six-furlong U. S. Bank Stakes on April 18, it was all Sandia's Flicka and Melba Jewel, who finished in a virtual dead heat with a daylight margin on third-place finisher Sariano.

Sandia's Flicka, who emerged the winner, came into that race off a solid six-race campaign at Sunland Park in New Mexico. She was in midseason form. Melba Jewel, however, was making her 2004 debut. She had license to be a little short.

Handicappers of Sunday's 6 1/2-furlong Federal Way Handicap will likely weigh those factors and conclude that Melba Jewel has far more reason to improve in the second start of her form cycle than Sandia's Flicka does in her eighth start of a cycle. It's logical that Melba Jewel should win the Federal Way.

Unless, of course, she bounces.

Simply put, the bounce theory holds that horses who produce a peak performance are likely to regress, or bounce, in their next start. Some believe that such horses are particularly likely to regress if they were coming off a long layoff, if they endured a prolonged drive to the wire, or if they earned a speed figure that was significantly better than any they had produced before.

All of those conditions apply to Melba Jewel, who was coming off a vacation of nearly six months and dueled from the quarter pole to the wire, while earning a Beyer of 73, 9 points higher than her previous best. Does that mean she will bounce on Sunday?

Trainer Frank Lucarelli doesn't think so, and it's not because he rejects the bounce theory out of hand.

"I think horses do bounce, but it usually happens when they come back quickly after a big race following a layoff," he said. "It has been nearly a month since Melba Jewel raced, and I've had time to work her twice. I think that lessens the likelihood that she'll bounce."

Lucarelli also feels the disposition of an individual horse plays an important role in determining whether that horse will regress.

"When some horses run for the first time after a layoff, they'll be all jacked up for a week or more after the race," he said. "If you run that kind of horse back quickly, he is likely to lose his composure in the paddock and fail to settle in the race. It's more of a mental thing than a physical thing."

Lucarelli has few concerns about Melba Jewel losing her composure.

"She really has a pretty good mind," he said. "She's not the kind to lose weight after a race, and she doesn't seem to need much recovery time. She acted like she could go again three days after her last race, and she has really been training super. She is a versatile filly, so the pace isn't a big concern, and I think she will like 6 1/2 furlongs. I'm really excited about running her."

Lucarelli admits that he was talking on something of a theoretical level, at least when it came to Melba Jewel.

"The fact is that she has never run back in a timely fashion before," he said. "We were fighting sore shins with her all last year, so all of her races were widely spaced. Maybe she'll hate running back even this quickly, but I don't think so.

"All things considered, I think she is more likely to improve than regress."

Sariano is candidate to improve

Of course, Melba Jewel could improve and still not win the Federal Way. Perhaps somebody new to the stakes ranks will run better, or maybe one of her previous rivals will improve more than she does.

A prime candidate for extraordinary improvement is Sariano, who closed for third in the U. S. Bank Stakes despite bucking a speed bias that helped to produce eight gate-to-wire winners on a nine-race card that day.

"Nobody was closing much ground that day, but she came from 10th to get third, and she was gaining on the leaders at the end," said trainer Steve Bullock. "I thought it was a very encouraging effort for her first start of the year."

Sariano, a daughter of Rubiano, was an impressive debut winner last year and gained stakes-placed status running third in the one-mile Barbara Shinpoch. But Bullock feels she never came close to realizing her potential at 2.

"She got mad in the gate in her second start, and that was her only bad race," he said of Sariano's eighth-place finish in the Angie C. "After the race I was schooling her in the paddock and she flipped and hurt her tailbone, and she never fully recovered."

He hopes Sariano is over both her mental and physical problems.

"She has filled out some and she has matured," he said. "She seems to be feeling good, and she has been training like a bear. The extra distance has to help, so I'm expecting a really good effort from her. I just hope the track is playing fair this time."