07/17/2002 12:00AM

New rider on filly for return to a mile

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Every time she looks behind her in the starting gate, Victory at Sea sees some new guy on her back. Friday, Rene Douglas takes his turn on Victory at Sea, who clearly is the horse to beat in Arlington's $45,000 feature.

There was rider continuity early in Victory at Sea's career. Larry Melancon rode her the first two times she raced, and Pat Day was up in her next three starts. But in seven races since then Victory at Sea has had a different pilot each time.

In the end, though, it was a switch in distance, not jockeys, that eventually brought out the best in Victory at Sea.

Victory at Sea seemed like a sprinter. She won her maiden at six furlongs late in her 2-year-old season, then took a minor stakes in her first race of 2001.

But after four subsequent losses, Elliott Walden, who trains Victory at Sea for WinStar Farm, gave Victory at Sea a look in a one-turn mile at Arlington. A poor fifth in a sprint the race before, the filly responded with a convincing win at 11-1, and she has not run short since then.

Some horses are like that, fast enough to compete in sprints, but more comfortable with the tempo of longer races.

Victory at Sea does best when she runs freely on the lead, but she does not want to run all day. A mile seems to be about her limit if she faces horses of equal ability, though she was second this winter in the $50,000 Pippin Stakes, an Oaklawn race at 1 1/16 miles.

Friday, after a turf-sprint prep June 12 at Churchill, Victory at Sea is back at the trip that restarted her career - a one-turn Arlington mile. Opposing her are six rivals, none of whom trumps Victory at Sea on ability.

There is another horse who has much early speed, Soul Onarazorsedge, but she has drawn just inside Victory at Sea, which gives Douglas the luxury of breaking from the gate and seeing what develops.

Miss Pickums, who blew out three furlongs in a snappy 36 seconds here Wednesday, is a graded stakes winner, but has only one victory in the last two calendar years and has been at her best around two turns.

Lunar Star came up with a career-best race two months ago at Hawthorne, beating the solid filly Vicki Vallencourt by almost six lengths, but must prove she can duplicate that effort under different circumstances.

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