05/16/2002 11:00PM

A turf star tries to regain lost luster

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PHOENIX - We have been somewhat spoiled in recent seasons. Stars like Bienamado, Sunshine Street, Sandpit, and Marlin have carried the Southern Californian marathon division.

This year there's less star power and more competitiveness. But that's always fine for those looking to make a wager, and Sunday's Jim Murray at 1 1/2 miles on the Hollywood turf offers some opportunities.

That doesn't mean a star can't emerge in this restricted stakes. Last year's winner, Kudos, has since gone on to big things, including a win in the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap.

But this year a star is attempting to be reborn. A little more than a year ago, everyone already knew Startac was top-class on turf. A romping win in the Turf Paradise Derby on dirt even gave his connections Kentucky Derby aspirations.

Things didn't work in the Derby, however, and he quickly went from a face on the front page to a face on a milk carton. When he reemerged in Arlington's Grade 1 Secretariat he was viewed with some skepticism, but turned in a monster performance for the score. He was then transferred from trainer Simon Bray's care to Laura de Seroux by trustees of the Allen Paulson Living Trust. Startac finished the year with a sixth-place finish in the Oak Tree Derby and a ninth-place finish on a yielding turf course in the Hollywood Derby.

"Throw out the Hollywood Derby," de Seroux said. "He was bothered by an ulcer on his epiglottis."

That problem has long since been fixed, and now de Seroux is anxious to see what Startac will do at 1 1/2 miles when he negotiates that distance for the first time under high weight of 120 pounds.

"He's doing great, and I loved his comeback race against the kind of horses he ran against at not his ideal distance," said de Seroux, referring to his third-place finish behind leading milers Ladies Din and Thady Quill in a one-mile allowance race April 24, Startac's first start since November. Both Ladies Din and Thady Quill figure to be major players in next week's Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile.

"I think a mile and a half will suit him. He dropped out of it in the Secretariat and wore them down," she said.

It also doesn't hurt that for his first try at this distance he will get firm turf and isn't running into any long-distance monsters.

But Startac is not a sure thing. There are those who wonder if he can ever again be the horse who so impressed us the last two years. And there is competition from Dick Mandella's top-class Argentine marathoner Straight Flush and Bobby Frankel's proven stayer Skipping.

And there's also Sharbayan. His trainer, Wally Dollase, is quite eager to send him long. "He won a Group 3 [the Prix du Lys] at 1 1/2 miles at Longchamp last year. That's what he wants," Dollase said. "This is my first opportunity to run him that long."

Sharbayan, a 4-year-old Irish-bred colt, won an allowance race at Keeneland in his second start in the U.S. at 1 1/8 miles on turf April 11. He was bred by the Aga Khan. Dollase brought him privately last year for the Jess Miller Trust and George Middle. He has two wins and two seconds in six starts.

Dollase said he hopes that Sharbayan can develop into another Persianlux, who won the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap at Santa Anita at 1 1/2 miles on turf for Dollase last year and nearly beat superstar Bienamado in the Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano as well, falling short by just a half-length.

"Sometimes horses get better and better at a distance," Dollase said. "We started running Persianlux at 1 3/8 miles, and it really picked his head up," he said.

So both trainers expect the added ground to benefit their runners. But since Sharbayan is proven at this trip and figures the longer price, he may be where you side if you're looking to get bounce back should Preakness Day have taken its toll on you and your wallet.