03/08/2002 12:00AM

Spain needs different pace strategy

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A confusing field of fillies and mares entered the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap on Sunday at Santa Anita, where Spain tries to halt her slide in the richest filly-mare race of the winter meet.

Eight entered the $300,000 Santa Margarita, a 1 1/8-mile race for a division that lacks definition. Spain was expected to lead the filly-mare division into spring, but she has fallen short. In losing both starts at the meet, Spain has extended her losing streak to nine, even while increasing her bankroll to more than $3 million.

Spain's rivals Sunday include: Favorite Funtime, who stole an easy lead and raced gate to wire in the Santa Maria; Printemps, who rallied from last to third in the same race; turf-to-dirt Alexine; 4-year-old Azeri; and longshots Verruma and Tropical Lady. No starter enters with current form that qualifies as legitimate Grade 1 caliber. That includes Spain, whose fourth-place finish in the Santa Maria perplexed trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

"It wasn't what we had in mind, I think we need a little different race," Lukas said, adding that jockey Victor Espinoza "has to do some things different. I think she is better in a stalking position."

The Santa Maria unfolded all wrong for Spain, who was lured into dueling for the lead instead of being rated. It was an uncomfortable position for the 5-year-old, whose best efforts - including victory in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff - have come from off the pace. Owned by Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp., Spain has won 7 of 30 races. Recent efforts suggest she may be on the downside of her career.

While the slow pace of the Santa Maria compromised Spain, it flattered Favorite Funtime, who led all the way. She may find herself in the same position Sunday. On paper, the race lacks a serious early challenge for Favorite Funtime, a Bob Baffert-trained mare.

"She's one-dimensional," Baffert admitted, "and a mile and an eighth is a little far for her. But it was either this, or run her in a Cal-bred six-and-a-half. We figure she deserves a chance."

Baffert was only partly joking. Favorite Funtime, owned by California breeders John and Betty Mabee, has won 6 of 12, earned $417,900 and will try to become the sixth mare since 1990 to win the Santa Maria and Santa Margarita.

Trainer Ron McAnally, who has won six of the last 13 Santa Margaritas, starts Printemps. A Chilean 5-year-old, she has virtually no speed, but she will be finishing. If 4-year-old Azeri applies pressure to Favorite Funtime, Printemps would be the likeliest beneficiary.

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