03/29/2006 12:00AM

'Serenade' gets special treatment

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ALBANY, Calif. - It was a struggle to get Star Serenade to the races, but it may have been worth all the trouble for trainer Jim Hilling.

won her debut on Feb. 25 and returns to action in Friday's Golden Gate Fields feature, a six-furlong, $80,000 optional claimer that drew five 3-year-old fillies.

Star Serenade was difficult to break, Hilling said.

"She did all right here for a while, but, after her first breeze, she started to act silly as hell," he said. "Her sire Catrail was a champion miler in England, but I heard a story about him in which his trainer called him his most difficult horse to train."

Hilling realized he would have to approach Star Serenade differently than other horses.

"I knew if we kept her here, she might not even make it to the races," he said. "We were either going to have nothing or a decent horse, so we took the obvious route."

The "obvious route" was a five-week course in manners at Pleasanton with Mike Larsen, Hilling said.

"Mike rides all the troubled horses himself, and I didn't have anyone qualified to get on her," Hilling said. "He rode her and then sent her back to Golden Gate."

Star Serenade doesn't have the early speed that Star Quality, one of her Friday opponents, has shown. She has never won a stakes, as - who, like Star Quality, comes into the race seeking her third straight win - Star Serenade has only one career victory.

But Star Serenade does have plenty of talent and seems to have an explosive turn of foot in the lane. She also has a mind of her own, which she has demonstrated at the gate.

"She doesn't do anything bad in the gate, she's just a little obstinate going in," he said. "She broke so-so last time. She comes out okay, but she's not fast."

Hilling has tried a variety of things to keep her mind on her job, including sending her to the track without a pony.

She beat the talented Miss Bordeaux, who came back to win her next start, in her debut, but Hilling has schooled her as much if not more for her second start.

"The second time is sometimes the most difficult," he said. "Anything new upsets horses, and the second time they're still not completely sure what to expect."