02/14/2003 1:00AM

Starrer clearly one to beat

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ARCADIA, Calif. - First prediction - Starrer will win the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap hands-down Sunday at Santa Anita.

Second prediction - Starrer will be slighted in post-race commentary. Because even if she wins, who did she beat?

Five fillies and mares entered the $200,000 Santa Maria, a 1 1/16-mile race defined by what it lacks - namely Azeri and Affluent. That analysis is unfortunate, because Starrer, 5, is a top mare in her own right, and enters the season as a worthy contender for the best races in her division. Freshened for two months after a romping win in the Grade 2 Bayakoa at Hollywood Park, Starrer seeks her first Grade 1 win, against front-runner You, late-runner Printemps, and longshots Rhiana and Se Me Acabo.

The field is shallow; You is the only Grade 1 winner. Her planned vacation was postponed because, as trainer Bobby Frankel said: "These races are coming up so easy."

Frankel was not predicting victory, merely analyzing the division. And he's right. Azeri does not return until April; Affluent not until March.

That leaves You, 7 for 15 with earnings of more than $1.4 million, a threat to steal it. She will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, the first time Desormeaux has ridden for Frankel since Nov. 30. You's chances depend on how much pressure she gets from Rhiana and Se Me Acabo. Though she has not won a two-turn race in nearly a year, You has raced in

12 consecutive Grade 1's, winning five. Owned by Edmund Gann, You is the class of the field. However, conditions favor Starrer.

Owned by George Krikorian, Starrer has won 4 of 18 starts and earned $743,033. Her last was her best yet. In the Bayakoa Handicap, Starrer won by five lengths and equaled her career-best Beyer Speed Figure - 105. The Santa Maria has been planned since, and trainer John Shirreffs said Starrer has trained herself into top shape. "She gallops strong, she wants to do everything strong," he said.

Starrer had her final pre-race workout Sunday, and a wet track would move her up. "She galloped over the track [Friday], which was pretty wet, and handled the track very well," said Shirreffs.

Considering her pedigree - she is by Dynaformer out of a Relaunch mare - "it would be a surprise if it was any other way," Shirreffs said.

Even on a fast track, Starrer is the right mare based on current form, speed figures, and a one-paced style that should play well behind the speed. Starrer is expected to win, and after she does, hear the big question.

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