06/03/2004 11:00PM

Pesci tries to live up to hype

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Pesci has received ample hype since her career began last fall.

Part of that is because of her celebrity owner, actor Joe Pesci, and part is because she won her first two starts by a combined 13 1/2 lengths. Since then, Pesci has lost two stakes but rebounded to win an allowance race.

Sunday, Pesci will attempt to win her first stakes in the $100,000 Hawthorne Handicap at Hollywood Park. Trainer and co-owner Wesley Ward says he hopes the Hawthorne will lead to a start in the $300,000 Molly Pitcher Breeders' Cup Handicap at Monmouth Park on July 4.

First, Pesci must beat seven rivals in the Hawthorne, run over 1 1/16 miles on dirt. She brings outstanding form into the race: On April 30, Pesci won an allowance race over 1 1/16 miles by 8 1/2 lengths, finishing in the quick time of 1:40.83.

"The surprising thing is they went in 45 and change and she just kept going," Ward said.

is likely to have company on the lead in the Grade 3 Hawthorne. Stormica, second in the six-furlong Woodside Stakes at Bay Meadows May 2, may show speed.

Many of Pesci's formidable rivals are closers.

, who won the 2002 California Cup Juvenile Fillies and has subsequently placed in seven stakes, will make a late run.

, a Group 1 winner in Argentina who is making her U.S. debut, is likely to stalk the pace, while Makeup Artist, the winner of the 2003 Senorita Stakes, is a closer.

Mike Smith has the mount on Pesci. He has been aboard for three of Pesci's five starts. Smith rode Pesci to wins against maidens and in a first-condition allowance race last year, and a third in the Santa Lucia Handicap at Santa Anita on April 4.

In the Santa Lucia over 1 1/16 miles, Pesci was rank early, challenged for the lead on the backstretch, and faded in the final furlong to finish five lengths behind Hope Rises.

"I wanted her to make a come-from-behind move," Ward said. "As soon as she went into the first turn, she was running over the top of horses."

Ward fitted Pesci with blinkers for her April 30 win. She will wear them again on Sunday.

"It helps her to stay a little more focused," he said. "The good thing about her is she's only had a few starts. Hopefully, she'll get better. I think she'll make it to the top level."