03/09/2003 12:00AM

Starrer takes Santa Margarita


ARCADIA, Calif. - Following Starrer's impressive victory against a strong field in Sunday's $300,000 , jockey Patrick Valenzuela issued a challenge to the connections of Horse of the Year Azeri.

"Against those mares and the way she did it, Azeri had better have her running shoes on," Valenzuela said.

The two mares are likely to meet in the future, perhaps as quickly as the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 5.

Last year, Starrer failed to challenge Azeri in three major races. Since she finished fourth to Azeri in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, Starrer is undefeated in three starts - the Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park in December, the Santa Maria Handicap last month and the Santa Margarita.

"This is as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned," said winning trainer John Shirreffs. "When you do it back-to-back-to-back, it's pretty nice. She's done it consistently."

Sent off as a slight favorite in the Santa Margarita, Starrer was second for the first mile, tracking Sightseek, who set early fractions of 23.58 and 47.16 seconds.

Sightseek led by a length on the backstretch, but faced challenges on the final turn from Starrer and Bella Bellucci who raced three-wide. At the head of the stretch, the three fillies were within a length. Starrer drew alongside Sightseek in early stretch, took the lead at the eighth pole and pulled away to win by two lengths.

Starrer ($5.20) finished 1 1-8 miles in 1:48.20.

"Sightseek was tough," Valenzuela said. "On the turn, I thought Bella Bellucci would be tough to beat in the stretch. She started running with my horse. Eventually my filly drew away in the stretch."

Sightseek held second, finishing three lengths ahead of Bella Bellucci. Got Koko, who swept the three-race La Canada Stakes earlier at this meeting, finished fourth, followed by Printemps. Affluent was scratched on Saturday because of illness.

The 5-year-old Starrer races for George Krikorian. She has won 6 of 20 starts and $1,043,033.