03/07/2003 1:00AM

They're all good in Santa Margarita


ARCADIA, Calif. - The filly-mare championship of the Santa Anita winter meet is only one starter away from perfection, which is just fine. It makes Sunday's Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap the most intriguing stakes race of the season.

"Without Azeri in there, it could be anyone's race," trainer Ron McAnally said.

Six fillies and mares entered the $300,000 Santa Margarita, led by McAnally's multiple Grade 1 winner Affluent; Santa Maria winner Starrer; and Got Koko, who swept the three-race La Canada Series for 4-year-old fillies. The outsiders include the McAnally-trained late-runner Printemps; likely pacesetter Sightseek, trained by Bobby Frankel; and Bella Bellucci, a longshot trained by Neil Drysdale.

"You've got Hall of Fame trainers and super fillies and mares, so it will be a test of who wants it the most," said Got Koko's trainer Bruce Headley. "It's looking like it could be the best race for fillies and mares we've had here in a while."

The Santa Margarita also sets up perfectly for Starrer.

Trained by John Shirreffs and owned by George Krikorian, the 5-year-old Starrer scored the first Grade 1 victory of her career Feb. 16, defeating a racing-weary You by 4 1/2 lengths in the Santa Maria Handicap. That race was Starrer's first start in two months, posing the question of whether she can reproduce that result three weeks later.

"We don't have that comfort zone to know exactly, except she is training awesome," Shirreffs said. "Her gallops have been strong, but relaxed."

It is an important distinction. Starrer looks and acts like a mare who can produce another top effort. If she had regressed off the Santa Maria win, she might have dropped weight or pulled on her exercise rider in the morning. She has not.

"She's doing really good right now, she's holding her weight, she feels good about herself," Shirreffs said. Starrer worked just once since her last start, but the trainer said "fitness cannot be a question at this point."

Rather, the issue is whether Starrer is good enough. A winner of 5 of 19 starts, Starrer, who will be ridden by Pat Valenzuela, figures to get a pace-pressing trip behind Sightseek. Assuming Starrer runs like she did three weeks ago, the Santa Margarita is her race to lose.

Shirreffs won the 1999 Santa Margarita with Manistique, but has a way to go to catch McAnally, who has won the race six of the last 14 years and will be favored to win it Sunday with Affluent. A 5-year-old mare, she rallied from last to win the Grade 1 Santa Monica at seven furlongs Jan. 25, and McAnally held her out of the Feb. 16 Santa Maria to await the Santa Margarita.

"She likes her races spaced, she's training good, she's nice and bright," McAnally said. Like Starrer, Affluent gallops strongly and therefore does not show her best form in timed workouts. "That's the reason we don't work her fast," McAnally said.

Affluent will have a new rider, Julie Krone, who has familiarized herself with the mare in morning works. The question with Affluent is whether the pace will be fast enough to flatter her closing kick. Affluent has won eight races and more than $1.4 million from 20 starts, and is a Grade 1 winner on dirt and turf.

Got Koko has won her last six dirt starts, and will try to hold her form for the fourth time this meet. "It's lucky it's 30 days [since her last start]," Headley said, adding, "she's been feeling good and training good." Got Koko has won 6 of 10 overall and has earned $452,946.

While Got Koko appeared to be in deep water at the quarter pole of the La Canada, she somehow rallied for the win over Sightseek and Bella Bellucci. The 1:48.41 final time of the race earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure for Got Koko. It also earned her a spot in the biggest filly-mare race of the meet.

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