04/05/2002 1:00AM

Penny Marie focused on graded stakes win


ARCADIA, Calif. - Since she made her debut three years ago, Penny Marie has been a source of both potential and frustration.

Minor setbacks have limited the 6-year-old Penny Marie to 14 starts. She has won seven races, including two minor stakes, but has lost four graded stakes without winning one.

On Sunday, she can reach that milestone with a victory in the $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap at Santa Anita, a Grade 3 over about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course.

"For her value as a broodmare, we need to win a graded stakes," said trainer Bob Hess, Jr.

Penny Marie has impressed Hess since her last start, a nose victory in the minor Winter Solstice Handicap on the hillside course on March 7. The minor stakes was her first start since she finished third in the Mamzelle Stakes at Churchill Downs last May.

Hess said Penny Marie has made a remarkable turnaround this year. "She's like a brand new Ferrari," he said. "She's completely sound. Historically, her problems have been ankles and allergies. I don't want to jinx myself, but she's incredibly sound."

Penny Marie drew the rail in the Las Cienegas and will be ridden by Corey Nakatani, who rode her to a win in an allowance race in March 2001. Penny Marie faces seven others, including the 2001 stakes winner Gabriellina Giof, Refine, Rolly Polly, and Warren's Whistle.

Bobby Frankel starts Rolly Polly and Twin Set. The pair finished 1-2 in the Safely Kept Handicap last November at Hollywood Park. Rolly Polly subsequently won an allowance race on the hillside turf course, while Twin Set finished second by a nose to Penny Marie in the Winter Solstice.

"I think this race is a bit tougher with Rolly Polly in there," Hess said.

Penny Marie will be close to the pace and may inherit the lead if the Argentine import Refine does not take command early. In the Winter Solstice, Penny Marie was third early and was all out to hold on.

"She got a touch tired late," Hess said.

Refine won four starts last year in Argentina, including three stakes. The highlight was a nine-length victory against males in a sprint over five furlongs.

She has not raced since winning a Group 3 stakes in November.

"She has tremendous speed, but she relaxes and has a kick," trainer Laura de Seroux said. "In all her races in Argentina, she stayed with the field and opened up. I think the 6 1/2 furlongs will suit her perfect."

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