01/30/2005 1:00AM

Salt Champ captures Santa Monica Handicap

Salt Champ ($13) rallies to win the Santa Monica Handicap by a length at Santa Anita Park on Sunday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Twice in the stretch of Sunday's $250,000 at Santa Anita, Gary Stevens feared that his late rally on Salt Champ would come up short. He was delighted an Argentine import with a bottomless source of energy.

"I kept finding new gears," Stevens said. "I thought she was all out two different times and she wasn't. She had more."

Rallying from last on the backstretch and making up more than five lengths in the final three furlongs, Salt Champ won her U.S. debut in the Grade 1 Santa Monica for fillies and mares. She ran down the outstanding mare Island Fashion, the defending champion of the Santa Monica, who lead in the final furlong.

Salt Champ ($13) ran seven furlongs in 1:22.14. Owned by Arturo Vargas of South America and trained by Richard Mandella, Salt Champ was making her first start since winning a Group 1 over about a mile in Argentina last April.

"You never know what they're like until you get them here," Mandella said. "In the morning, she's a little fireball."

Salt Champ trailed by more than six lengths on the backstretch.

Royally Chosen and Resplendency were part of a three-horse speed duel through fractions of 21.76 and 44.32 seconds.

Stevens kept Salt Champ at the back until the end of the backstretch when he chose to go around the field. "There was nowhere to go inside, and I thought if I got stopped I couldn't recover from it," he said.

Salt Champ was fourth at the eighth pole and won by a length. Island Fashion held second, finishing 2 1-2 lengths in front of Resplendency in the field of nine.

Salt Champ, 5, has won 5 of 8 starts and $217,541. Mandella did not state any goals, but hinted that she could be tried around two turns in her next start.

"There's no reason she shouldn't go a middle distance," he said.

*Elusive Diva won her turf debut in the $81,000 Wishing Well Handicap on the hillside turf course.

Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, Elusive Diva finished a half-length in front of Solar Echo, the 2-1 favorite. Stevens, who rode Solar Echo, lodged an objection against Elusive Diva, alleging that Elusive Diva cost Solar Echo momentum when she passed in front of her in midstretch. The stewards disallowed the objection.

The race marked Solar Echo's first start since a second in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks in 2003. Any for Love finished third.

Elusive Diva ($12) ran about 6 1-2 furlongs on turf in 1:13.14. Owned by a partnership and trained by Mark Glatt, Elusive Diva has won 4 of 10 starts and $270,070. She is a candidate for the $150,000 Buena Vista Handicap over a mile on turf on Feb. 21