10/25/2001 11:00PM

Spain still on the defensive

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ELMONT, N.Y. - She won last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff, and will be among the leading contenders in this year's $2 million race Saturday at Belmont Park. With a victory, she would join Bayakoa as the only two-time winner of the Distaff, a feat that eluded such outstanding runners as Beautiful Pleasure, Hollywood Wildcat, Jewel Princess, and Paseana.

And yet Spain enters the Distaff as the most unappreciated horse defending a Breeders' Cup title this year. Kona Gold, Macho Uno, and Tiznow - who also are running Saturday - all earned Eclipse Awards with their victories one year ago at Churchill Downs. Those wins were viewed as the appropriate denouement to a championship campaign.

Spain's victory was looked at as something of a fluke. She was 55-1, the highest priced winner in the race's 17-year history. At the end of the year, her D. Wayne Lukas-trained stablemate, Surfside - whom Spain defeated in the Distaff - won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.

Spain, who was bred and is owned by Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation, has won 7 of 26 starts, and has earned nearly $2.5 million. She is a two-time Grade 1 winner, and has been second or third in seven other Grade 1 races. But, unlike popular Thoroughbred Corporation runners like Officer and Point Given, she has never attracted a following. Spain has been favored in just seven races, and has been the favorite in less than half her nine starts since her Breeders' Cup victory.

Even her trainer, Lukas, acknowledges that Spain never has gotten her due.

"I don't think so, for whatever reason," he said this week at his Belmont Park barn. "It's happened within The Thoroughbred Corporation program, too." Lukas said that after Spain won last year's Turfway Breeders' Cup, he told Prince Ahmed and his racing manager, Richard Mulhall, that he wanted to point for the Breeders' Cup. "They rolled their eyes and said good luck," Lukas said, laughing.

Spain, now age 4, was seemingly a cut below the best in her division for most of her first two seasons on the track. At age 2, while trained by Jeff Bonde, she finished second to champion Chilukki in the Del Mar Debutante and Oak Leaf Stakes, and was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Last year, she lost her first four starts of the year, including a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks, before she was transferred to Lukas.

After losing her first race under Lukas's care, Spain won three times in her next five starts. From September 2000 until March of this year, she finished first or second in eight straight races, including victories in the Breeders' Cup and Santa Anita's Grade 1 La Brea Stakes. But after a poor performance this spring in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, Spain was given a four-month break from racing.

"Dick and I talked. We felt we couldn't defend this spot here if we raced her all summer," Lukas said. "It's tough to compete at this level of competition all year."

The time off was obviously beneficial. Spain has not won in three starts since returning to the races, but was a sharp third last time out in the Beldame Stakes. She lost by only 1 1/2 lengths to Distaff rivals Exogenous and Flute despite having to move prematurely on the turn to avoid Beautiful Pleasure, then twice having to check in the stretch when Exogenous lugged in. "I thought it was a great effort," Lukas said.

She has thrived since the race. Spain, a daughter of Thunder Gulch, is not very big, but her bay coat is gleaming. Lukas was proud to show her off to a visitor. "Look at that," he said, "it's absolutely silk."

Lukas has won more races (16) and more prize money ($17.5 million) than any trainer in Breeders' Cup history. As such, he is quite aware of the significance of Spain winning the Distaff for the second straight year.

"We've got 16 wins, but none back to back," Lukas said. "Everything we did this summer with her was geared toward trying to win this twice. In order to give her her due, for her to get her name in capital letters, we had to try to win this again. She hasn't been anointed yet, but if she wins, I think they'll have to look at her as one of the greats."