07/23/2003 11:00PM

Owsley, Bien Nicole here with agenda

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Owsley was shipped to Arlington from New York to sidestep the strongest East Coast horses in her division, but she will not stroll to an easy victory in the Modesty Handicap.

Planted squarely in Owsley's path is Bien Nicole, who may be her equal in middle-distance turf races, such as the 1 3/16-mile Modesty. Beret and Flager are unproven in North American graded stakes, but they too may put up a fight.

One of three stakes here on Million Preview Day, the Modesty could have the most bearing on Million Day itself: the connections of both Owsley and Bien Nicole will consider going in the Grade 1 Beverly D. next with a win on Saturday.

"We're not just up there for the Modesty," said Bien Nicole's trainer, the Louisiana Downs-based Donnie Von Hemel. "If she runs a big race, we can look at the Beverly D."

It's not out of range. Bien Nicole, a 5-year-old mare owned by Kristine and John Richter, capped off a five-race win streak last season in the $100,000 Estrapade over this turf course. She's won 3 of 5 this year, but not as smoothly.

"We had a few hiccups this year," Von Hemel said. "We were trying the dirt earlier this year, but the Apple Blossom against Azeri might not have been the best idea."

Back on turf at Lone Star, Bien Nicole caught a soft grass course she didn't handle in the May 26 Win Star Distaff, but she bounced back with an easy win June 28 in the Honeymoon at Louisiana Downs.

"We really didn't have to get to the bottom of the tank with her there," said Von Hemel.

Owsley, a multiple Grade 2 turf winner, has yet to score in three starts this year while racing against top females on the East Coast. She lost with excuses in the first two of those races before running an even fourth last out in the Grade 2 New York Handicap.

"I could make excuses for that race, too, but I won't," said trainer Randy Schulhofer. "We're trying to get away from some of those fillies in New York right now. She's doing really well."

Flager, an Argentine import, won a second-level Churchill allowance race by 10 lengths in her North American debut.

"South American horses sometimes don't adapt to training here, but she's done everything right," said trainer Bobby Barnett.

Beret, trained by Harvey Vanier and owned by his wife and daughter, is the local hope, with two impressive wins in two starts this year.