02/19/2004 12:00AM

Undercover will benefit from her versatility

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Supposedly, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. How about a 5-year-old mare?

Whether the Tony Dutrow-trained Undercover comes from far off the pace, as she did for the first time last month, or reverts to her previous preference for front-running could be the key in Saturday's $75,000 Maryland Racing Media Handicap at Laurel Park.

As a 3-year-old, Undercover won the Maryland Million Oaks by leading wire to wire, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 97 that has remained the best of her career.

Last season, Undercover won 3 of 4 starts, including the nine-furlong Gala Lil, by pressing the pace and putting away the early leader.

But after flashing high speed and fading in back-to-back starts, Undercover and jockey Mario Pino tried completely different tactics in the Jan. 31 Nellie Morse. Undercover was taken back to eighth, some 12 lengths behind, in the early stages of the 1 1/16-mile race and was still seventh, with nearly eight lengths to make up, after six furlongs.

From there to the finish, however, Undercover was flying, passing four horses and coming within a half-length of the winner, City Fire, while rallying bravely between horses.

Logic might dictate that Undercover repeat those tactics in Saturday's 1 1/8-mile handicap, except for the fact that she projects as the lone speed in a field six older fillies and mares. Dutrow didn't reveal his strategy, but did say he expects Undercover to run well.

"She is really consistent," Dutrow said. "I was proud of her in that last race. I am concerned with her coming back in three weeks after a such big effort. But having said that, I have to run, because it is a short field and she is certainly capable of winning this race."

Besides Undercover, the only horse who has shown any ability to race well from up front is Sweet Dynamite, who wired a group of second-level allowance runners in the mud at Woodbine last November. Sweet Dynamite finished a neck ahead of Undercover in the Nellie Morse after sitting in mid-pack for most of the race.

Friel's for Real comes into the race in sharp form. She has won her last two starts, both against high-priced optional claiming company, by a combined margin of seven lengths. She will be making her first stakes appearance since finishing far back in the January 2003 Busanda at Aqueduct.

Database was a three-time winner last season, including a nine-furlong overnight stakes at Delaware Park in the slop. She could be primed for a peak effort in her third start off a layoff.