12/16/2005 12:00AM

Starlet offers relief from routine

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With the wounded Hollywood Park fall season in its last throes, it comes as a pleasant surprise to look up and see a first-class stakes event decorating the final Sunday of the meet.

Deprived of traditional grass racing because of gardening errors, Hollywood Park has limped along since the early November opener, its gait thrown off by the imbalance of small fields running for good-sized purses. Adding meteorological insult to injury, the weather had been relatively benign, which would have boded well for turf competition. Instead, it ended up being nothing more than a stretch of good days for sinking new turf course roots.

Fans can't be blamed for growing weary watching sod grow. On Sunday, however, they will get a chance to pick and choose from a truly handsome field of 2-year-old fillies set to run in the Hollywood Starlet Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile event that will offer a purse of $447,000.

The total is boosted by $120,000 worth of supplemental entries, at $20,000 a throw, which makes the final number look like the Starlets of the 1980's, when it was a $500,000 guaranteed event. The all-time Starlet prize was offered in 1984, just three weeks after the running of the first Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, when the value of the race, less nominator awards, topped $700,000.

Outstandingly, who was moved up to first on the disqualification of Fran's Valentine in the 1984 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, quieted doubters in the subsequent Starlet by beating Fran's Valentine handily. It was good enough to give Outstandingly the Eclipse Award for her owners and breeders, Lou and Patrice Wolfson.

Since then, the Starlet has been regularly ignored in voting for the division championship, even though it has been won by such sharp young fillies as Serena's Song, Very Subtle, Goodbye Halo, Sardula, Sharp Cat, Surfside, Elloluv, and Excellent Meeting.

As a consolation, the race has been a reliable tip-off for almost guaranteed success at age 3. The Starlet winners listed above accounted for three runnings of the Kentucky Oaks, four runnings of the Santa Anita Oaks, two each of the Fantasy and Mother Goose, the Beldame, the Test, the Acorn, and the Ashland, not to mention the Jim Beam, the Haskell Invitational, the Clark Handicap, and the Breeders' Cup Sprint against males.

With the one-two finishers in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies - Folklore and Wild Fit - both awaiting the new year, and Oak Leaf Stakes winner Diamond Omi dead, the stage is temporarily ripe for the taking. Sharp Cat Stakes winner Balance will be favored on Sunday, but not by much over Moccasin Stakes winner Private World. Both are 3 for 3. True Xena, who would have been 2 for 2 if not for Private World's nose win in the Moccasin, will also draw heat, along with the impressive maiden winners Sabatini and Meetmeinthewoods.

Into this buzzsaw, Gary Mandella will toss Karlee's Kitten, a daughter of Pioneering who aced a maiden race at Hollywood Park on Nov. 20, at the Starlet distance.

If nothing else, the committee in charge of racing's karma owes Mandella a big one, and soon. In his first outing with a Breeders' Cup horse this year, he had to sit helplessly as Taste of Paradise lost the Sprint by a head to Silver Train after a troubled trip. Mandella was further tortured by an inquiry that did not go his way.

"It took a bottle of wine to get over that one," Mandella said. "But I got a lot of calls over the next few days, with people telling me that they thought I ran the best horse. I was going to be happy if he just ran a good second to Lost in the Fog. But if he was going to come that close, he might as well have won it."

In Karlee's Kitten, Mandella has a filly who seems built for the distance, leaning more to the Colonial Affair side of her pedigree. Mark Tatch, a new investor to the game, bought her for $80,000 out of the Barrets 2-year-old sale last May.

"Being by Pioneering, we kind of expected to get a fast filly who'd win early, so we were kind of lost during the summer when she just kept growing," Mandella said. "We just had to do like my dad does - be patient and let her mature."

"Dad" is Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, who has won three Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds, but is otherwise not exactly known for cranking out precocious young flyers. Gary Mandella served as his father's assistant before going out on his own three years ago.

"Yeah, he sort of left me floating in the wind when it comes to 2-year-olds," Gary cracked. "He was no help at all."

Karlee's Kitten will be among those supplemented to the Starlet, adding to the risk.

"I believe she's showing me in her training that she has improved since she won, otherwise we wouldn't be this ambitious," Mandella said. "But I have some comfort in that my filly can get the distance, while over half the field is inexperienced around two turns, which tells me that at least I'm approaching it the right way."