04/25/2002 11:00PM

Stretchout sprinter takes a shot in Melair

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Twice this year, Icantgoforthat has led past the eighth pole of a sprint stakes only to be caught near the line.

By In Excess, Icantgoforthat is a filly with remarkable speed and would seem best suited for sprints. But trainer Steve Knapp is gambling on something new in Sunday's $200,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old California-breds at Hollywood Park.

Knapp said he is trying Icantgoforthat in her first race over 1 1/16 miles, hoping that a slower early pace will lead to a different result.

"She's actually bred to go long," Knapp said. "In Excess was bred to go 1 1/8 miles. This is the best chance to give her an opportunity to go long."

Sunday's running is the richest running of the Melair Stakes, which has attracted only one graded stakes winners - Bella Bella Bella.

Owned by Team Valor Stable, Bella Bella Bella makes her first start for trainer Neil Drysdale. In her first five starts, Bella Bella Bella was trained by Jenine Sahadi, and won three races, including the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita last January. The barn transfer was made after Bella Bella Bella finished seventh in the minor Some Sensation Stakes on March 15.

Aside from Bella Bella Bella, Icantgoforthat faces a field that includes Lady George, the champion 2-year-old California-bred filly of 2001; the improving Nicole's Pursuit; and Super High, the six-length winner of an allowance race on March 29.

Owner Gordon Severson said the Melair will be Lady George's final start. She was bred recently to Bouccaneer.

They will all be chasing Icantgoforthat, who Knapp claimed for $50,000 last November at Hollywood Park.

"I'd watched her since Del Mar," Knapp said. "One time I saw her at Santa Anita. She was in the six hole, veered out and darted straight to the lead. I've always liked claiming speed horses; they really like to win."

Since being claimed, Icantgoforthat has won two allowance races. Most recently, she finished fourth in the Santa Paula Stakes over 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on March 24, beaten three-quarters of a length by Bella Bellucci.

Her finish in that race was flattered when Bella Bellucci returned to win the Comely Stakes at Aqueduct on April 14 as a prep to Friday's Kentucky Oaks.

The Melair will be Icantgoforthat's first start beyond seven furlongs.

"In her last four starts, she's improved tremendously," Knapp said. "She ran a huge race against Bella Bellucci in the Santa Paula. She only got caught on the line."