05/08/2005 11:00PM

'Sapphires' could face pace woes

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Wednesday's featured seventh race at Lone Star Park is for filly-and-mare turf horses, a second-level allowance with a $40,000 claiming option.

For handicappers, it's just plain difficult.

Eight horses were entered to run the 7 1/2 furlongs on the cozy Lone Star grass, and it is not easy to comfortably throw out more than one of them. Conquistador's Cat does not seem at this point like a grass horse (she was ninth of 10 in the Irving Distaff on opening night), and probably is overmatched on grass, though she becomes the horse to beat if the race is transferred to the main track.

The pace in this race should be swift, the field bunched. Sapphires N Halos, who could be favored, got away with an easy lead on the way to a grass win April 28 at Lone Star, but she is unlikely to get the same trip Wednesday. Sapphires N Halos actually beat higher-class horses than these in that start; she was entered for a $50,000 tag in a race with a third-level allowance option. Now, she runs under second-level allowance conditions, and one can see why the trainer Donnie Von Hemel does so well wherever he goes. So far this meet, Von Hemel has run 24 horses: seven of them won, and 17 finished third or better. And no wonder, with his apt placement, as with Sapphires N Halos.

Good as Von Hemel is going, jockey, Don Pettinger, is even hotter, winning on 8 of his first 22 mounts at the meet. His task Wednesday night will be to quickly judge the early pace. Graziella, a stretchout sprinter, figures to leave for the lead, with the outside-drawn Bridal Gal also a possible send from the gate. Sapphires N Halos has come from slightly off the pace before, but she might be best racing on the front end.

The pick for a mild upset, then, is , who finished fourth, beaten a length by Sapphires N Halos in her last start. The soft early pace that helped the winner also led to Leo's Barroness's defeat, since she is a filly better off getting covered up early and rallying behind an honest pace. That could be the setup that plays out Wednesday, and Leo's Barroness could break through in her fourth start of the season.

Two others come out of the same race, including Marfa's Taxes, who figures to improve this time in her second start back from a winter break. But Marfa's Taxes is tough to trust on top, having finished second in half her 16 starts over this grass course.