03/21/2002 12:00AM

They'll work hard for their money

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The $150,000 purse of Saturday's Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita does not do justice to the quality of the field.

Five fillies or mares who have won a Grade 1 race in the last 18 months meet in the Grade 2 Santa Ana, run over 1 1/8 miles on turf. Bettors must choose among Grade 1 winners Astra (2001 Beverly Hills Handicap), Golden Apples (2001 Del Mar Oaks), Janet (2001 Yellow Ribbon Stakes), Starine (2001 Matriarch Stakes), and Tout Charmant (2000 Matriarch Stakes) as well as four longshots.

"It's more like a Grade 1," said trainer Ron McAnally, who starts Tout Charmant. "The best fillies in the country are here."

The Santa Ana is a springboard to two major filly-mare turf stakes: the $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap here on April 20 and the $500,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park on May 27.

The Gamely is in the plans for Starine, the likely favorite in the Santa Ana, who is trained by Bobby Frankel. Starine's win in the $500,000 Matriarch Stakes last November, a race that also featured five Grade 1 or Group 1 winners, was her best performance of 2001.

Saturday's race, her first since the Matriarch, will not be much easier, Frankel said.

"I want to get a race into her before the Gamely," he said.

The weight assignments show how closely matched the top contenders are. Astra, Starine, and Tout Charmant carry top weight of 122 pounds, two more than Janet and three more than Golden Apples. A win by Desiraes My Candy (114), Impeachable (113), Catz (112), or So Wistfullee (112) would be a shock.

Astra and Golden Apples will be well-backed, but are returning from layoffs. Astra has not started since finishing ninth in the Beverly D Stakes last August. She was scratched from the Buena Vista Handicap last month due a skin problem, according to trainer Laura de Seroux.

Golden Apples hasn't raced since she finished third behind Starine in the Matriarch Stakes.

Janet and Tout Charmant have won stakes this year.

Janet won the Grade 3 Brown Bess Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 2, her fourth stakes win in the last year.

The 6-year-old Tout Charmant was nearly retired a few months ago, but earned another season after a win in the Grade 2 San Gorgonio Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on turf on Jan. 13.

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