02/13/2004 1:00AM

Next stop, the champ

In the Las Virgenes, Class Above will race without blinkers, and A.P. Adventure (above) is expected to lay off the pace. Awaiting the winner is a date with Halfbridled.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita never was going to be easy, even without you-know-who. While the 3-year-old filly division is deep, trainer Wally Dollase believes .

"Right now, I might be able to beat her on the fair and square," Dollase said. He will find out soon enough. Halfbridled returns March 13 in the Santa Anita Oaks, which will be the next start for A.P. Adventure if she passes a class test Sunday in the $250,000 Las Virgenes.

Nine fillies entered the one-mile Las Virgenes in which A.P. Adventure's advantage, if any, is slim. Her main rivals are Grade 1 winner Hollywood Story and highly regarded stakes winner Class Above. Other entrants include graded stakes-placed Rahy Dolly and Wildwood Flower; sprinters Whoopi Cat and Friendly Michelle; and outsiders Mme. Espionage and Stellar Jayne.

A key issue in handicapping the Las Virgenes is evaluating A.P. Adventure's win in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel. Notwithstanding her 92 Beyer Figure and 3 1/2-length margin, A.P. Adventure was struggling on the far turn, yet drew away late when the pacesetters collapsed.

Dollase chalked it up to A.P. Adventure's inexperience. "She's green, she doesn't know what she's doing yet," he said. "She might be green in this race too, but if anyone is going to catch on, it's her."

A.P. Adventure has posted several bullet works since she last raced, posing another quandary. Even handicappers unimpressed by her stakes win must recognize that the daughter of A.P. Indy is sure to improve while starting for only the third time. Fast works are not typical for a Dollase trainee.

"I'm not the kind of guy to work them as fast as they can," he said, adding that A.P. Adventure is "doing it on her own. She's come a long way. She's did fit now, and very athletic."

Dollase expects A.P. Adventure to lay off the pace, and rally late.

Hollywood Story's win in the Grade 1 Starlet earned a 95 Beyer, and followed a layoff similar to the one she returns from Sunday. She will have a new rider, in Victor Espinoza, however. "If Patrick [Valenzuela] had been available to ride her, it would have been a comfortable situation for us," trainer John Shirreffs said, "but Victor's a great rider, and that's why we had him work her, to get her to know her a little bit.

Hollywood Story would benefit by a strong pace, which she is likely to get.

The presence of front-runner Rahy Dolly and sprinter Friendly Michelle insure honest fractions. Rahy Dolly disappointed Jan. 19 in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez, when trainer Rafael Becerra felt she was positioned too far off the pace. Her runner-up finish in the Hollywood Starlet was accomplished on the front end.

Rahy Dolly will have company, because Friendly Michelle pressed a 44.20-second half-mile last time and trainer Bob Baffert has no intentions of slowing her down. Those two may allow Class Above to fall into a good trip right behind the speed. Class Above removes blinkers, because Baffert said they "were making her too keen."

A 16-length winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies before a disappointing effort in the Breeders' Cup, Class Above has worked well for her return. "She's good enough to win first time back," Baffert said. "Is she fit enough? I think the mile will be perfect."

Wildwood Flower finished third in the Santa Ysabel, and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer expects her to improve in her second start around two turns. Whoopi Cat raced wide and finished sixth in the Santa Ynez, her first start since August. She is likely to improve second start back, but remains at least a race away from top form.