10/10/2001 11:00PM

Startac returns in tough spot

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Nearly two months after Startac won the biggest race of his career in the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park, he returns for a new trainer as the likely favorite in Saturday's $150,000 Oak Tree Derby at Santa Anita.

Despite the sizable purse difference, the Oak Tree Derby, run over 1 1/8 miles on turf, is not an easy spot. In a field of nine, five are stakes winners and two are stakes-placed.

The only thing missing is a bona fide pacesetter, which may result in Romanceishope, the winner of the Del Mar Derby, inheriting that role.

Romanceishope, a leading contender, has won three of his last five starts, including two turf stakes.

Against a well-matched field, Startac will not be a heavy favorite in his first start for trainer Laura de Seroux, who received the colt four days after he won the Secretariat Stakes for Simon Bray. The owners, the Allen Paulson Living Trust, made the switch without publicly disclosure of the reason.

Startac has been in training with de Seroux at San Luis Rey Downs, but has worked on the Santa Anita turf in the buildup to Saturday's race. The Oak Tree Derby will be Startac's second start since May. He was 10th in the Kentucky Derby at 102-1.

"Because the Secretariat was off a layoff and was 1 1/4 miles, I'm glad we've had this extra time between races," de Seroux said. "He's gotten over the weight he did lose from the trip to Chicago and back. He's very sharp. I like all the factors leading up to this race. He's so sharp and he's fresh."

Startac is a closer, but he may be nearer to the pace than normal. He will be ridden by Alex Solis, who was aboard in the Secretariat Stakes.

Avoiding traffic will be vital for Startac and several other starters.

Sligo Bay, the winner of the Cinema Handicap at Hollywood Park, is a closer, as is No Slip, who was stakes-placed in France and starts for the red-hot Bobby Frankel stable.

Sigfreto used a late kick to win a division of the Oceanside Stakes at 39-1 in July but saw the same tactics fail in the Del Mar Derby when he finished fourth after being blocked. He has since won the Pomona Derby.

"If he gets through, I think he gets there," trainer Doug Peterson said. "I'm hoping for a clean trip, even if he's wide. With a big horse like this, if you get stopped, it's tough to get rolling."

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