11/18/2003 1:00AM

'Moonlight' grows into her big body


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Mexican Moonlight stands out in Thursday's $54,900 allowance feature at Churchill Downs - literally. Measuring 17 hands in height, Mexican Moonlight is an uncommonly large 3-year-old filly. Now that she has begun to grow into her massive frame, more than her height is drawing attention.

On Oct. 18, less than four months after she won her maiden in her ninth try, Mexican Moonlight finished second in the Grade 3 Valley View Stakes at Keeneland. Dismissed at 24-1, she made a bold move on the turn to take command before being outfinished in the closing yards by multiple stakes winner Dyna Da Wyna. She was beaten three-quarters of a length.

"It takes a while for [big] horses to catch up to themselves," said trainer Paul Murphy. "Once she filled out, she got more power behind, more strength."

That strength led to improved confidence. Murphy said she used to be intimidated racing between horses, due partially to her stride being so much longer than that of a typical horse. Now she doesn't fear getting pushed around.

Mexican Moonlight will has an opportunity to put that newfound strength to good use in Thursday's ninth race. She faces a good field of three-other-than allowance fillies at a mile on grass, including Voodoo Lady, who is also stakes placed. Voodoo Lady finished second in an allowance at Keeneland on Oct. 10.

Voodoo Lady is one of the few fillies in the field who has shown she can run nearly as fast as Mexican Moonlight. She regularly earns Beyer Speed Figures in the mid- to upper-80's. Mexican Moonlight earned a 92 Beyer in the Valley View and an 89 Beyer in an allowance victory that preceded the Valley View.

Of the remaining fillies, Forest Shadows and Final Discount seem most likely to challenge. Forest Shadows, out since July, won the Edgewood at Churchill Downs in May. Final Discount, a winner of 3 of 6 turf races, also is fond of the local turf. She has won her only two Churchill Downs grass races by a combined margin of 10 1/2 lengths.

- Two other allowances support Thursday's card. Captain Thunder, a fast maiden winner Nov. 1, races against winners for the first time in the eighth race, an entry-level allowance at seven furlongs.

- In race 7, March De Paix, a stakes winner in France, makes her second North American start in a two-other-than allowance going 1 1/16 miles on grass. Peacefally, her principal challenger, is stuck on the also-eligible list.