01/16/2004 1:00AM

Pesci's absence hurts in more ways than one


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Racing higher-ups would give their eye-teeth for the kind of star power capable of luring even the most casual of racing fans to the racetrack or their television sets.

Unfortunately, it appears as though an appearance at Gulfstream Park next Saturday by the famed actor Joe Pesci and his good friend, the even more famous Robert De Niro, will have to wait for another day. Pesci badly wants to run his star filly and namesake, Pesci, in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff on the Sunshine Millions program, but the filly ranks far down the pecking order of eligibility and seems doubtful to make the race.

"Joe's been calling me five times a day to see whether we're going to get in or not," said Wesley Ward, who for nearly three weeks has been training Pesci at the Palm Meadows training center near Boynton Beach. "But it doesn't look good. The last time I checked we were number 16," a ranking that Gulfstream racing secretary Dave Bailey confirmed Friday.

Because only 14 horses will be carded on the program, and only 12 can run (there will be two also-eligibles), the second annual Sunshine Millions - which is being broadcast live by NBC Sports on a two-hour telecast that starts at 4 p.m. Eastern - most likely will miss out on a golden opportunity to show off the kind of celebrities that draw from outside the usual pool of customers.

Pesci, a 4-year-old filly who has been absolutely sensational in winning her two career starts, both in Southern California, ranks far down the Distaff list because of her lack of experience in comparison to the many accomplished fillies and mares ahead of her. Pesci, by Stormy Atlantic, is still eligible for two-other-than allowance conditions, while some of the others, including Cellars Shiraz, Ivanavinalot, House Party, and defending champion Smok'n Frolic, are multiple stakes winners.

"The rules for eligibility are fairly written," said Gulfstream president Scott Savin. "Believe me, for obvious reasons, we would love to have Joe Pesci here for the Sunshine Millions, and we'd love to have the horse. Unfortunately, conditions are conditions, and it's too bad the horse hasn't run enough to have gotten higher on the eligibility list. We sure would hope Joe shows up anyway."

Ward, who accompanied eight horses to Palm Meadows and also has active strings in Southern and northern California, said Pesci the actor is prepared to travel with a number of friends to Gulfstream on a private jet. He said De Niro also plans to come on the off chance that the horse makes the race.

"I just wish we had the chance to run," said Ward. "She'd win. She's that good."

Ward, who along with Mark Giordano is a part owner with Pesci in the filly, arranged for jockey Jerry Bailey to work the filly on Jan. 10 at Palm Meadows. She went an easy half-mile in 49 seconds. "She's training better than she ever has in her life," said Ward. Bailey would not ride her in the Distaff because he will be riding in the Sunshine Millions events at Santa Anita on the same day.

Entries for the eight-race, $3.6 million Sunshine Millions series, which is restricted to California- and Florida-bred horses, will be drawn Monday at both Gulfstream and Santa Anita. Each track will host four races next Saturday.

Magna Entertainment Corp., which counts Santa Anita and Gulfstream as its two flagship tracks, launched the Sunshine Millions amid considerable fanfare last year in an attempt to make the series a meaningful winter event on the annual racing calendar. Besides funding a substantial amount of the huge purses, Magna also has purchased airtime with NBC and made other major investments in trying to make the Sunshine Millions an immediate success.

Read the Footnotes getting in shape

Read the Footnotes, one of the top 3-year-old candidates stabled here this winter, had his first serious work since arriving in south Florida when he breezed a half-mile in 47 seconds at Palm Meadows on Friday morning. A winner of four of five starts at 2, including the Remsen and Nashua stakes, Read the Footnotes is expected to make his 2004 debut in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 14.

He is trained by Rick Violette, who also sent out Grade 1 winner Man From Wicklow on Friday for his final major work in preparation for next Saturday's Sunshine Millions Turf. Man From Wicklow breezed an easy half-mile in 48.80 at Palm Meadows.

Man From Wicklow, who has not started since finishing second in the Grade 3 Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland on April 23, is expected to be among the favorites in the Sunshine Millions Turf.

Aeneas faces easier competition

Aeneas, second in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap here last winter and graded stakes-placed on four other occasions in 2003, will seek to get back on the winning track when he drops in against optional-claiming competition in Sunday's ninth race. Despite holding his own against graded stakes company, Aeneas was winless in nine starts last season and is coming off one of his poorest performances, a well-beaten fourth behind Predawn Raid in the Grade 3 Fred Hooper Handicap on Dec. 27.

Predawn Raid, who led throughout to upset Best of the Rest and Aeneas in the Hooper, returns Sunday in the sixth race, the split of the optional claimer.

Rampart first target for Lead Story

Lead Story, the vastly improved mare who swept the Churchill Downs Distaff and Falls City Handicap in November, is on course to make her 5-year-old debut in the Grade 2, $200,000 Rampart Handicap here March 14, said trainer Carl Nafzger.

Lead Story will not have a prep race before the Rampart, said Nafzger. That's the same plan that Nafzger used several years ago with Banshee Breeze, who won the 1999 Rampart after a layoff of several months following an Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old season.

* Madcap Escapade, a sensational 10-length winner of her career debut on Jan. 4, worked three furlongs in 34.20 seconds here Friday. It was easily best of 17 works at the distance on the morning's tab.

* The Dame Mysterieuse, a $60,000 race, was supposed to be run here this weekend but had to be canceled after drawing just three entries. It was designed as a prep for the Feb. 14 Old Hat Stakes. "You always like to make your stakes, but there just wasn't enough interest," said racing secretary Dave Bailey.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch