11/06/2003 12:00AM

Still pretty tough

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When a filly has earned nearly a half-million dollars from just six starts - and yet the consensus opinion is that the season has been a disappointment - it can only mean one thing: Expectations going into the year were extremely high.

That's the way 2003 has gone for Awesome Humor, who was spectacular when she went unbeaten in four starts last year at 2. Even her trainer, Elliott Walden, is quick to acknowledge that Awesome Humor has slipped a notch or two by winning only two of six starts this year.

"I think she's probably gone from a filly that was in the top 2 or 3 last year to one of the top 10 this year," said Walden.

Still, in relative terms, being able to retain top 10 stature in any Thoroughbred division in North America is an accomplishment. And so it is that Awesome Humor enters Saturday's $200,000 Churchill Downs Distaff with the right to keep her head high.

"When you look back over her record, she's been first or second in 10 of 11 starts," said Walden. "That's pretty impressive."

Awesome Humor, with Larry Melancon substituting for the injured Robby Albarado, is the 118-pound highweight among 10 fillies and mares entered in the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff, which is run at one mile, out of the long backstretch chute. Having won four graded stakes, including the Oct. 3 Indiana Breeders' Cup Oaks in her latest start, Awesome Humor will spot two pounds to the likely favorite, Yell, a 3-year-old who enters off an impressive triumph in the Oct. 10 Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland.

Yell, with Pat Day to ride, drew post 4. A Claiborne Farm homebred, she ran in five straight Grade 1 races before dipping down to capture the Grade 3 Raven Run with an eye-catching rally.

If either of the 3-year-olds is to be upset, Lead Story or Mayo on the Side may be the ones to pull it off. Both 4-year-olds enter in good form for trainer Carl Nafzger.

The Churchill Distaff dates to 1986, when Lazer Show won for jockey Charlie Woods Jr. and trainer Don Winfree. Subsequent winners include such standouts as Educated Risk (1994), Lakeway (1995), and Chilukki (2000). The 2002 winner was Softly, ridden by Jon Court.

The Churchill Distaff is the ninth of 10 races on a Saturday program that also includes three allowances (races 5, 7, and 8). First post is 12:40 p.m. Eastern.