03/29/2002 12:00AM

Santa Lucia acts as stepping-stone


ARCADIA, Calif. - The eight fillies and mares in Sunday's $75,000 Santa Lucia Handicap at Santa Anita have raced against the circuit's top females on both dirt and turf this year.

The only thing missing from their collective portfolios is the stakes win that one will claim in the restricted Santa Lucia. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Santa Lucia is designed as a confidence-booster for fillies and mares who have been racing or an easy start in stakes company for less-experienced fillies launching their stakes careers.

Alexine, a stakes winner at Turf Paradise in December, may be a slight favorite even though she has drawn the outside post. Trained by Richard Mandella, she finished fourth in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap on March 10, losing by eight lengths to Azeri. The Santa Margarita was her first start on dirt, a surface that Mandella feels may work for the 6-year-old Alexine.

"She may be as good on one as she is on the other - not with the top, but not bad," Mandella said.

Two other mares with turf experience - Kalatiara and La Ronge - will figure prominently in the betting. Kalatiara won the Grade 3 Royal Heroine Stakes last July at Hollywood Park in her U.S. debut, but is winless in four subsequent starts. She had a breathing problem in her last race, a fifth in an allowance race on turf, according to trainer Ron McAnally. The Santa Lucia will be her main track debut.

La Ronge placed in two turf stakes last year and was fourth in the Grade 1 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap on dirt last June. She was third in the Winter Solstice Handicap on the hillside turf course on March 7 in her 2002 #debut and first start for trainer David Hofmans.

Last year, while racing for Neil Drysdale, La Ronge showed speed when she won three allowance races - two on the main track and one on turf.

Alexine and Kalatiara are stalkers who need a rival to engage Stormy Society in the opening half-mile. Cashmina, who is making her stakes debut, and De Goddaughter, could be close early.

De Goddaughter led throughout when she won an allowance race at Golden Gate Fields in late January, but was unable to keep up with Secret Liaison in the Sacramento Handicap on March 2, losing by two lengths. Stormy Society is best from the front, without or without company, according to trainer Christopher Paasch.

"She can take some pressure," Paasch said.