Updated on 09/15/2011 1:28PM

There's no pace in this race

Benoit & Associates
Happyanunoit wins her 2001 debut in last month's Gamely.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Subtract $50,000 from the purse and remove all pace, and the 2001 version of the Grade 1 Beverly Hills Handicap on Sunday at Hollywood Park is nearly identical to last year, when Happyanunoit romped and Astra finished off the board.

There is another important distinction. This year, Astra enters as a fresh mare, the likely favorite, and most probable winner first start in two months. "It's in black and white," said trainer Simon Bray. Astra, he said, "runs well off a layoff and we've been gearing up for this since the day after the Santa Barbara. I wouldn't trade places with anyone."

Astra and Happyanunoit are co-favorites in the 1 1/4-mile race. Four others include potential upsetter Kalypso Katie and longshots High Walden, Polaire, and Jig. Despite a purse reduction to $200,000, the Beverly Hills will fill a national void. Said Bray: "I would think whoever wins this race goes to the head of the division."

If the race is true, Bray is right. The absence of a single front-runner, however, suggests anything might happen. To win will require that a horse relax early and kick late. A starter who gets rank behind laggard fractions will be severely compromised.

"There's no pace, it's going to be a screwy race," trainer Bobby Frankel said. "It's going to almost be a jockey's race. The good thing about [Happyanunoit] is she does relax; she doesn't pull."

Happyanunoit returned from a six-month layoff to win the Grade 1 Gamely one month ago, apparently recovered from tender feet that led to four straight losses after winning last year's Beverly Hills. While the comeback signaled a possible return to form, the Gamely was not a strong race. Happyanunoit won by a head; it was a half-length back to unlucky Beautiful Noise, who Astra previously crushed by three lengths.

"It wasn't such a great race, but I'm sure [Happyanunoit] has faster numbers to run back to," Frankel said. He said the possibility of a bounce is a legitimate concern, but added "it's been four weeks" since then.

Happyanunoit, owned by John Amerman, has won nine races and $1.5 million from 20 starts, including three Grade 1's under regular rider Brice Blanc. A New Zealand-bred who turns 6 years old July 1, she carries

122 pounds. Frankel also entered High Walden, but said she is not a confirmed starter.

Astra has won seven of nine, and earned $500,424. Bray attributes her fourth-place finish in the Beverly Hills last year to running back too soon. No excuses this year. Owned by Allen Paulson Living Trust, Astra's recent form is superior to Happyanunoit based on their common foe. Beautiful Noise, Bray said, "is a good yardstick, she runs the same race every time."

Astra's tendency to pull, however, poses a potential drawback in a race with no pace. "My filly can pull a little, and she's a little more aggressive in her training coming into this race," Bray admitted. "It's who settles without getting rank, and who can sprint the fastest. The one thing about my filly is she's not real quick away from the gate.

"That," he said, gives rider Kent Desormeaux "a chance to get in behind something."

A potential knockout is 2000 English Oaks runner-up Kalypso Katie, trained by Neil Drysdale. She won her U.S. debut vs. two-other-than foes, then finished a flat fifth in the Gamely while failing to change leads. It was later discovered she strained a knee.

Kalypso Katie was sent from England by owner Michael Tabor to take advantage of numerous opportunities for older fillies and mares. After running so well on soft courses overseas, one may question her effectiveness on firm.

for Beverly Hills Handicap Past Performances.

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