01/16/2004 1:00AM

Starting over

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Benoit & Associates
To the surprise of her owner, Island Fashion is not among the finalists for top 3-year-old filly.

ARCADIA, Calif. - When the 2003 Eclipse Award finalists were announced earlier this month, horse owner Jeff Nielsen of Minnesota stared in disbelief at the nominees among the 3-year-old fillies.

In the days before the announcement, he was certain his filly Island Fashion had impressed enough voters with her millionaire status and wins in two Grade 1 stakes - the Alabama at Saratoga in August and the La Brea at Santa Anita on Dec. 27 - to merit a position as a finalist.

Instead, she was left out, partially a victim of the late date of her latest stakes win. The finalists were Bird Town, Elloluv, and Six Perfections, all Grade 1 winners.

"We were shocked, to say the least," Nielsen said.

Nielsen made a late-season decision to ship Island Fashion to California for the La Brea in an attempt to win the Eclipse Award. While the plan failed, Nielsen is ready to showcase Island Fashion before the same voters this year.

Sunday, Island Fashion will be a heavy favorite to win her 4-year-old debut in a small field in the $150,000 El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita.

A winner of 4 of 10 starts and $1,112,970, Island Fashion has earned a place as Nielsen's favorite runner in his two-decade involvement in the sport. Aside from her stakes accomplishments, she has proven to be a durable and adaptable filly.

In 2003, Island Fashion was based with Nick Canani in California for five races, and shipped to Barclay Tagg in New York for three races before joining Marcelo Polanco in California in the fall. Along the way, Island Fashion raced at eight tracks in six Grade 1 races.

"I've been in the business for 20 years, and had my share of graded stakes winners," Nielsen said. "None have come close to the athletic ability of this filly."

There were high expectations from the start.

She made her debut in the Arizona Oaks at Turf Paradise last February, finishing fourth behind stablemate Harbor Blues. After a second against maidens at Santa Anita on March 5, Island Fashion won the WinStar Oaks at Sunland Park on March 29.

The performance gave Nielsen and Canani an excuse to try the Kentucky Oaks, where she finished seventh, 10 1/2 lengths behind Bird Town.

During the summer, Island Fashion was in outstanding form. She won the Delaware Oaks in her final start for Canani, who later took a job as a private trainer for Michael Gill. In her first start for Tagg, Island Fashion won the Alabama Stakes by six lengths in an 8-1 upset.

Her form tailed off in the fall at Belmont Park, with a fourth in the Gazelle Handicap and sixth in the Beldame Stakes.

The losses dropped her from contention for the Breeders' Cup Distaff and put her out of the mind of many Eclipse Award voters.

"She had a mild dislike for the Belmont surface," Nielsen said.

When Adoration, a 4-year-old, won the BC Distaff, Nielsen knew the 3-year-old filly championship was still unclaimed.

"I felt she could win the Eclipse Award and I had to do it late in the game by chasing the races," he said.

With Polanco training, Nielsen chose two Grade 1 races - the Matriarch at a mile on turf against older fillies and mares and the La Brea for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.

Island Fashion nearly produced the stakes upset of the year in the Matriarch at Hollywood Park on Nov. 30. Sent off at 87-1, Island Fashion rallied from 12th to finish fourth, three-quarters of a length behind the winner, Heat Haze.

"It was her first time on turf," Nielsen said. "It was a lot to ask even though I had a lot of confidence. We were glowing for days afterwards. If she wins that race, she's a lock for the Eclipse Award."

Four weeks later, Island Fashion started against the heavily favored Elloluv in the seven-furlong La Brea. While Elloluv was stuck in traffic on the backstretch, Island Fashion disputed the pace to early stretch and won by six lengths.

"She's the sort of filly that can make a jockey famous," said Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard in the La Brea and has the mount in the El Encino.

Two days later, Eclipse Award ballots were due. Nielsen expected Island Fashion to be a finalist.

"We weren't politicking," he said. "Clearly when a horse can run on that many tracks with that many different jockeys with three trainers within a year, that's an incredible horse. To not be mentioned was a shock."

Polanco, for one, remains angry. Island Fashion gave him his first win in a Grade 1.

"What else did they want her to do to show she can run?" Polanco said. "It was a slap in the face."

Two weeks have passed since the Eclipse Award finalists were announced. Nielsen insists he is not bitter, but anxious to prove his point in 2004.

"We missed the Eclipse Award," he said. "It will take some awesome fillies to knock her out this year."