03/05/2002 1:00AM

Penny Marie back from her layoff


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is not easy being Penny Marie, a fragile mare who suffers from chronic allergies and requires numerous layoffs. But she is no pushover.

Penny Marie has won 6 of 13 races, runs well fresh, loves the Santa Anita downhill course, and is sufficiently qualified to win the $75,000 Winter Solstice Handicap on Thursday at Santa Anita. Ten fillies and mares entered the 6 1/2-furlong turf race, including 121-pound highweight Paga; in-form Queen of Wilshire, and comebacker Penny Marie, 118 each; and La Ronge, at 117.

Although the recent form of most entrants is well defined, Penny Marie has not raced in 10 months. Bob Hess, her trainer and nursemaid, said Penny Marie is healthy and ready. "Put it this way - she's allergy-free and she's the soundest she's ever been in her life."

The 6-year-old Penny Marie has not raced since May, however. "I don't think that's an issue, she's proven to be better fresh," Hess said.

It's true. Penny Marie won her debut by seven lengths, and both wins on the downhill course have been following short layoffs. Penny Marie's current 10-month break was out of necessity.

"Her allergies were catching up to her, and she was getting arthritic and stiff," Hess explained. "Time will tell," he said, if she is as good as ever. Her workouts suggest she is. Kent Desormeaux rides Penny Marie, while Mike Smith has the mount on the most likely winner, Paga.

Paga would have been a prime contender Feb. 18 in the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap, but scratched. "She popped a quarter crack right on top of the race, and it was too late to do anything," her trainer, Richard Mandella, said, adding "it's good now."

Paga won the Grade 3 Monrovia Handicap Dec. 31, her second win from three starts in the United States. Bred in Argentina, she won the Osunitas Handicap last summer at Del Mar in her U.S. debut. Mandella said Paga did not miss significant training, and he expects her to reproduce top form.

Queen of Wilshire shortens to a sprint after finishing second in two mile races this meet. Though she has won over a route, her style suggests a sprint may be the preferred distance. La Ronge has flirted with success, and she finished only a neck behind Paga when they met last summer. The Thursday feature is the first start for La Ronge since November.

Paga, Penny Marie, Queen of Wilshire, and La Ronge have earned similar Beyer Speed Figures.

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