08/18/2001 12:00AM

Startac just gets up to take Secretariat


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - As bad as they felt after Astra flopped in the Beverly D., that's how good the connections of Startac felt after the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes was run Saturday.

Startac, carrying the colors of the Allen Paulson Living Trust and trained by Simon Bray, was up in the final jump under Alex Solis to nail Strut the Stage in the 25th running of the definitive midsummer race for 3-year-old turf horses. The first two finishers are sons of Theatrical, the champion turf horse of 1987 owned by the Paulsons.

"That took some of the pain away," said Bray, referring to Astra's last-place finish.

Startac, a homebred making his first start since finishing 10th in the May 5 Kentucky Derby, returned $24.40 after rallying from last in a field of 11.

Strut the Stage, a Sam-Son Farms colt who appeared en route to victory in deep stretch before being nipped by a nose, finished a half-length ahead of Sharp Performance.

Living up to its billing as the deepest of the three International Festival of Racing events - Mizzen Mast was the 5-2 favorite, followed by Sharp Performance at 3-1 - most of the field took its best shot in the Grade 1 Secretariat.

Royal Spy and Fan Club's Mister led through the first mile, chased closely by Mizzen Mast. Then the front started getting really crowded. Sharp Performance and Navesink made strong bids, after which Strut the Stage powered to the lead from the outside. Then came the winning bid from Startac, who completed 1 1/4 miles in 2:04.91 over a yielding course.

The dramatic finish led to some bittersweet thoughts from Madeleine and Michael Paulson, the widow and son of Allen Paulson, who died last year.

"He was very proud of this horse and Theatrical," said Madeleine Paulson.

"This is a real tribute to all of his contributions and devotion to horse racing," said Michael Paulson.

Startac started his career by running four solid races on grass. But when the Kentucky Derby became the focus this winter, he was switched to dirt, only to fail in the Derby.

"The big plus was he came out of the Derby in great shape," said Bray. After getting three weeks off, the colt "progressed very well in his training."

The 7-11 exacta paid $154.20 and the 7-11-8 trifecta paid $607.20.

The field was reduced by one when Sligo Bay was scratched because of the turf conditions.