10/12/2003 11:00PM

'Rioja' no lock in field of five


ARCADIA, Calif. - After finishing behind Breeders' Cup hopefuls Tates Creek and Musical Chimes in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon Stakes on Sept. 28, Red Rioja has an easier task in Wednesday's second race at Santa Anita. She faces four opponents in a $65,000 optional claimer over a mile on turf.

"It's still not easy to win a race around here," said her trainer, Ben Cecil.

Owned by Karen Sanderson, Red Rioja is trying for her fourth win in an already successful career. Prior to joining Cecil, Red Rioja raced in Europe, where she won the Group 3 Park Stakes in Ireland in 2001 and was third in the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2002.

In her U.S. debut on Sept. 6, Red Rioja won an optional claimer over a mile on turf at Del Mar. In the Yellow Ribbon, she was last of eight on the backstretch and rallied from 11 lengths off the pace to finish fifth, 5 3/4 lengths behind Tates Creek, who is being pointed for the BC Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

"She was a little too relaxed early on in the race the other day," Cecil said. "She made up a reasonable amount of ground. It's kind of quick back, but she only really ran a couple of furlongs. She wasn't blowing hard when she got back to the barn."

Red Rioja drew the outside post in the field of five, all of whom have stakes experience. Fun House was third in the Grade 3 Railbird Stakes in 2002, Elaine's Angel has placed in several stakes, Voz de Colegiala was a group stakes winner in Chile last year, and Garden in the Rain has placed in several stakes.

Garden in the Rain will be favored, and is coming off a troubled trip when third in the Grade 2 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap at Del Mar on Sept. 6. She was forced to wait for room in the stretch and was beaten a neck by Spring Star.

Julie Krone rode both Garden in the Rain and Red Rioja in their last start and is riding Garden in the Rain on Wednesday. Patrick Valenzuela rides Red Rioja.

Garden in the Rain has placed in three graded stakes this year. Earlier this year at Santa Anita, she finished second in the Buena Vista and Santa Ana handicaps.

Trained by Jeff Mullins, Garden in the Rain makes her first appearance in an optional claimer since winning a similar race last January.