12/13/2007 1:00AM

Patience with Country Star will pay off now

EmailLOUISVILLE, Ky. - For a horse owner, the conservative approach is often the hardest to accept. It is human nature to dream about winning the biggest races on the grandest stages. That, of course, is part of the reason the Kentucky Derby starting gate is filled with 20 horses, almost year after year.

So when an owner - or trainer, for that matter - chooses to be conservative with a horse, opting for long-term results instead of the potential for a short-term gain, horseplayers are wise to pay close attention. These horses, under astute management, often hit ultimate peaks in their development that their counterparts never reach.

Time will tell whether that holds true of Country Star, one of the starters in Saturday's Hollywood Starlet, but one certainly gets the impression that she is going to blossom over the final weeks of 2007 and into 2008.

The reason? Her connections resisted temptation. After she won the Oct. 5 Alcibiades at Keeneland on two weeks' rest in just her second start, trainer Bobby Frankel and Bob McNair of Stonerside Stable balked at the prospect of bringing her back on another three weeks' rest in the Breeders' Cup, even though a victory in that race could have resulted in her being voted champion juvenile filly.

Beginning Saturday, when Country Star returns in the Hollywood Starlet, I believe they will start to reap the rewards of their decision.

Although it is impossible at this point in the year for Country Star to snatch divisional honors - Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Indian Blessing has that locked up - Country Star looks in perfect position to score a Grade 1 victory in the Starlet.

For starters, she stays on a synthetic track, Hollywood Park's Cushion Track, after winning over the Polytrack at Keeneland. Secondly, she benefits from catching a field that is weak by Grade 1 standards.

Granted, Set Play - who won the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante this summer - is in the field, but following three subsequent defeats in the Oak Leaf, BC Juvenile Fillies, and Miesque Stakes, she does not appear to be one of the division's elite fillies.

Country Star, in contrast, ranks in just about anyone's top 10, even though she has raced just twice. Besides her win in the Alcibiades, she ran second in a maiden turf race at Belmont Park behind Backseat Rhythm, who went on to run second and third in the Frizette and BC Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

They were not the only two good fillies in that maiden race, either. Mushka, who won the Grade 2 Demoiselle on Nov. 24 at Aqueduct, crossed the wire third that day.

Given more than two months to mature since the Alcibiades, expect an improved Country Star in the Starlet. And a steady work tab dating back to Oct. 23 gives the appearance that she is fit and in good health.

Fair Grounds: Ascertain can rebound

Competition runs deeper in the Buddy Diliberto Memorial at Fair Grounds on Saturday. A field of 10 has been entered, although one horse, Going Wild, will only compete if the race comes off the grass.

Initially, I found myself drawn to Sterwins and Gimme Credit, because of their class and overall consistency, but in the end decided to back Ascertain, whose form is clouded by a 10th-place finish in the Grade 3 River City Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23.

I do not view that race, which he lost by 22 1/4 lengths, as representative of his ability. Ascertain was cut off and impeded early, and then raced along the inside portion of a boggy turf course that he may have disliked.

Toss out that race and his form is solid. He won three in a row prior to that loss, on a couple of those occasions defeating horses that were stronger than those he faces Saturday.

I also like that he has the speed to gain a forward position, either on or near what should be a slow to moderate pace.

Aqueduct: Wow Me Free fits on dirt

Lastly, I will take a shot with Wow Me Free in the Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct, a rare 1 1/4-mile dirt race for fillies and mares.

A late-runner, Wow Me Free looks well suited to the return to a traditional dirt track after racing over Polytrack and turf in her last couple of starts. It was on dirt that she ran a close fifth behind Octave in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks in July.

A 3-year-old filly who has raced mostly in Maryland, she may slip past the betting public and offer value.