08/15/2001 11:00PM

Strong Beverly D. field stands in Astra's way

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The meticulously scripted plan for Astra will encounter its most difficult hurdle so far this year when she faces eight others Saturday in the $700,000 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington.

Trainer Simon Bray has mapped out a schedule of just four races for Astra, the standout 5-year-old mare whose 2000 season ended prematurely after a defeat in the Beverly Hills in July at Hollywood. Bray already has saddled Astra to win the Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills this year, and he believes that victories in two Grade 1 races, the Beverly D. and Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, would be sufficient to nail down an Eclipse Award.

Astra is deserving of solid favoritism in the 1 3/16-mile Beverly D. under Kent Desormeaux, but there are at least a few obstacles that could cause Bray's best-laid plans to go awry.

One is England's Legend, a French-bred filly who last month captured the Grade 2 New York Handicap with aplomb. Corey Nakatani, who won the Beverly D. six years ago with Possibly Perfect, will be back aboard for trainer Christophe Clement.

Another is The Seven Seas, who, like Astra, has racked up a solid record in California. Although she lacks the graded credentials of Astra, she comes into the Beverly D. with serious momentum, having easily won her last two starts at Hollywood for trainer Bobby Frankel.

Another is Megans Bluff, a Kentucky-based filly trained by John Hennig. In the local prep for the Beverly D., the July 28 Modesty Handicap, Megans Bluff came screaming home to barely miss catching Ioya Two. The late rush showcased another dimension of Megans Bluff, who has developed into a Midwestern turf star, with earnings of nearly $650,000.

Several of the others in this terrific nine-horse field also have displayed glimpses of brilliance, including Kalatiara, an Australian import whose only U.S. race resulted in a game victory in the Grade 3 Royal Heroine last month for Ron McAnally; Spook Express, a late-running mare who won two graded stakes at Gulfstream early in the year; and Solvig, a multiple graded winner whose two career races over the Arlington turf have been very sharp.

Only to You, from Canada, and Di Moi Oui, from England, round out the cast.

The Beverly D., named for the late wife of Arlington chairman Richard Duchossois, is the youngest of the three Festival of Racing events, having been made into a major event in 1989, the year Arlington reopened, four years after burning down. Three of the last six winners have won Eclipse Awards in the division: Flawlessly (1993), Hatoof (1994), and Possibly Perfect (1995).

As the sixth of 12 Saturday races, the Beverly D. leads off the Festival pick three wager, which also includes the Million (race 8) and Secretariat (race 10).