02/12/2002 1:00AM

Santa Maria distance favors Spain


ARCADIA, Calif. - Spain will carry high weight of 119 pounds in her second start of the year Sunday in the Grade 1 Santa Maria. Trainer Wayne Lukas expects an improved effort from her as she stretches to 1 1/16 miles following a third-place finish in the seven-furlong Santa Monica on Jan. 26.

"She's better going long, and she had a super-nice workout [Monday]," Lukas said. "It was the best work of the spring for her." Spain was timed in 1:01.40 for her five-furlong work.

Spain has lost eight straight since winning the La Canada Stakes last February, though she missed by only a head in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Her 2 1/2-length defeat in the Santa Monica was disappointing considering that last year she won the La Brea Stakes at the same distance.

Lukas said he "might have had her fresher" when she won the La Brea last year. In the Santa Monica, "I think she needed the race," he said, "and she probably met a pretty good bunch."

Victor Espinoza will ride Spain, whose Santa Maria rivals are expected to include Queenie Belle, 117; Primtemps, 116; The Seven Seas, 114; and Leading Light, 113.

El Encino took its toll

The El Encino Stakes duel on Jan. 20 between Affluent and Royally Chosen may go down as the best race of the meet, but both fillies paid the price Saturday in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes when they finished third and fourth, respectively.

"That [the El Encino] was such a death struggle down the stretch that I think they both bounced," said Royally Chosen's trainer, Bruce Headley. He said Royally Chosen would not race again until at least April.

Affluent also will take time off, said trainer Ron McAnally, who said, "The first three finishers in the [La Canada] were all fresh."

McAnally did not rule out running Affluent in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita on March 10, but suggested Affluent is likely to be pointed to the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap on April 6 at Oaklawn Park.

Looking for lengths

Fancy As will add blinkers when he tackles Mizzen Mast on March 2 in the Santa Anita Handicap, and based on his Tuesday workout at Santa Anita, the equipment change will make a difference. Fancy As worked a half-mile in 46.40 seconds, breezing.

"He worked awesome, he was wanting to do something," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He needs to make up five lengths, so maybe we found it."

Actually, Fancy As needs to make up 8 1/2 lengths, the margin between him and Mizzen Mast in the Strub Stakes on Feb. 2. Fancy As finished third in the Strub, and third in the San Fernando Stakes Jan. 12. Baffert said Fancy As has been wearing blinkers in morning gallops, but Tuesday was his first workout wearing blinkers.

Baffert also worked Golden Gate Derby winner Danthebluegrassman a half-mile. His Golden Gate win was flattered twice when runner-up Cappuchino and third-place finisher U S S Tinosa returned to win minor stakes. Danthebluegrassman worked in company with Mountain Rage; both 3-year-olds were clocked in 48.80 seconds, breezing. Danthebluegrassman is expected to start next in either the San Rafael here on March 2 or the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on March 9. Mountain Rage, a stakes winner on turf, will return to the main track for the San Felipe Stakes on March 17.

Tough return spot for Astra

The best stakes race of the holiday weekend will be Monday, when a top-class field of fillies and mares races a mile on grass in the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap. Multiple Grade 1 winner Astra will carry high weight of 121 pounds for her first start since being transferred from Simon Bray to Laura De Seroux.

Astra has won 8 of 11, and has not raced since finishing last in the Beverly D. on Aug. 18 at Arlington. The 6-year-old Theatrical filly faces a tough group expected to include: Old Money, 118; Paga, 118; Veil of Avalon, 117; Elegant Ridge, 115; Blue Moon, 113; Crazy Ensign, 113; Minor Details, 113; and Tates Creek, 112.

Derby dream still alive

Cottonwood Cowboy, fifth in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 8, is off the Derby trail. Nevertheless, sixth-place finisher Shah Jehan will campaign forward. Making his first start on dirt and first since October, Shah Jehan, an import from Europe, set the pace and tired at the head of the lane under Mike Smith.

"I felt he was short, he's so laid back in his works," trainer Wayne Lukas said. "I think we might have a better horse than people think. He needed the race, it was his first on dirt, and Mike Smith was very impressed."

Shah Jehan still has his first condition, and will start next in either an allowance, the San Rafael, or the San Felipe.

Cottonwood Cowboy, 2-1 favorite in the Sham, will be freshened for six to eight weeks by trainer Chris Paasch, and return to sprints.

Paasch said Roman Dancer is on target for the Grade 3 Baldwin on Feb. 24; Kamsack is back galloping and is pointing to an early-May comeback; and top-class mare Collect Call is three workouts away from a comeback.