07/16/2001 12:00AM

Pair of potential grass stars emerge


ELMONT, N.Y. - Headed for stardom on the turf.

These two were impressive at Belmont Park over the weekend, scoring their first graded stakes victories in a manner suggesting there will be others to follow. England's Legend had the more formidable assignment, having to beat two genuinely talented fillies in Saturday's $250,000 New York Handicap for fillies and mares. Sharp Performance took a major step forward as well, winning Sunday's $150,000 Lexington Stakes for 3-year-olds with a mature performance well beyond his limited experience.

England's Legend, a 4-year-old daughter of the Danzig stallion Lure, had a modest record in France last year. Owned and bred by Edouard de Rothschild, son of the prominent owner-breeder Baron Guy de Rothschild, she won two ordinary races but failed to do much in graded stakes competition under the care of the brilliant horseman Andre Fabre. She was sent to Christophe Clement in America last fall. She made one start at Gulfstream Park last winter, was off slowly, and rallied to be a close fourth.

Clement couldn't find another race for her in Miami, and Rothschild proposed sending her home to be bred. Clement thought she had potential, and in assessing his options, he found a race at Santa Anita that seemed to fit.

England's Legend flew west and won with authority. That performance settled the question of retirement, but she developed a splint problem that kept her on the sidelines for several months. She was finally able to train again and showed enthusiasm.

Clement has always had a good opinion of England's Legend. Otherwise he probably would have passed the New York in favor of an easier spot. The favorite was the 8-5 Gaviola, a filly of considerable class and consistency. The hard-hitting Spook Express was another daunting presence. But Clement held his ground and brought in Corey Nakatani, who rode the filly when she won at Santa Anita.

Gaviola set the pace as expected in the New York Handicap and Nakatani placed England's Legend just off the leader, applying just enough pressure in a skillful ride. Gaviola continued gamely, but England's Legend took command in the final furlong and won smartly, pulling only four pounds,

Now Clement must decide between the $700,000 Beverly D at Arlington on Aug. 18 and Saratoga's $500,000 Diana Handicap on Sept. 3 as the next start for England's Legend. The seasoning she got in the New York Handicap has to help, and she should be a key factor in the race the trainer chooses.

Sharp Performance races for William Bloom, president of the Eastern Fish Company, and two attorneys, John Behrendt and Charles Marquis, who purchased the 3-year-old colt by Kris S. at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $175,000. Tallish and growthy last season, Sharp Performance never started at 2. He made his debut for trainer David Donk at Gulfstream on the grass last winter and closed well to be beaten a length. He won his maiden in another grass race at Belmont Park in May and won again, even more impressively, last month, going a mile and a quarter.

"I had no hesitancy about running him in the Lexington," Donk said, "but I was surprised when they made him the favorite. He's still a little green when he runs, but he's got ability and we think a lot of him."

Package Store set the pace in the Lexington and John Velazquez had Sharp Performance a few lengths back, always in striking position. When Velazquez moved in the upper stretch, Sharp Performance veered briefly to the inside, showing his inexperience. But Velazquez was able to get him back on course and he wore down Package Store to win by a length, the mile and a quarter in a respectable 1:58.93.

Donk, who saddled Awad to win the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park in 1993, is considering another trip to Chicago with Sharp Performance for the same feature on Aug. 18. On the basis of his performance in the Lexington, he will be tough to beat.