07/28/2005 12:00AM

Unshaken by Louvain's wake

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The San Clemente Handicap is normally a quiet little Del Mar grass race that makes very few headlines and even fewer reputations. This summer, however, it has become the most popular race in town, with nominations spilling onto the floor and enough potential entries to fill two attractive events.

In the end, the names of 15 fillies were dropped in the box Thursday morning - a bounty for which most racing secretaries would kill - but only 10 will be able to run because of the dimensions of the Del Mar course. The idea of running two San Clemente divisions was dismissed, in part, because the Grade 2 status of this particular edition would come under scrutiny by the College of Cardinals known as the North American Graded Stakes Committee.

"It's not an automatic downgrade if you divide a race," said Tom Robbins, Del Mar's vice president of racing. "They end up looking at each division and evaluate them separately to see if they deserve to retain the grade. Still, we try to avoid splitting a graded stakes."

That leaves a lot of promising young fillies out in the cold, hungry for a way to earn a shot at the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks later in the meet. In the meantime, the lucky 10 in the San Clemente are led by Louvain, second string to Melhor Ainda in the Bobby Frankel stable and already familiar to many of her Saturday opponents.

Royal Copenhagen and Island Escape were having a great race in the Flawlessly Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 4, dueling down to the final yards of the one-mile event on the grass. Then, with barely a by-your-leave, Louvain and Victor Espinoza flew past on the outside to end the discussion and win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Those participating in the exotics noticed that Royal Copenhagen edged Island Escape by a head, but it was Louvain's cracking finish that everyone recalled. Conditions are similar this time around in the San Clemente, but hope springs eternal.

"Pat [Valenzuela] got the feel of her in the last race," said Laura

de Seroux, who trains Royal Copenhagen for Richard Duchossois of Arlington Park fame. "And she worked very well over the new Del Mar turf. I'm sure she will take herself back as usual - I don't ever like to change a horse's style - and she will need a little luck in a big field.

"But except for two races back in the Honeymoon, she has fired every time," de Seroux added. "That was the day she clipped heels and almost fell going into the first turn. Luckily, she escaped unscathed."

Royal Copenhagen is not, de Seroux notes, named for the chewing tobacco - "She was probably named by someone with an affinity for Denmark, or something," the trainer noted - but she was bought with a specific goal in mind.

"If all goes well, we would love to run her in the Pucker Up at Arlington for Mr. Duchossois," de Seroux said. "That worked pretty good a few years ago with Little Treasure." She won them both.

Marcelo Polanco is not looking too far beyond the San Clemente with Island Escape, a daughter of Petionville owned by the Everest Stable of Jeff Nielsen. He is simply eager for her to get another shot at Louvain after the frustration of the Flawlessly.

"[Corey] Nakatani told me that she kind of lost her grip on the track at Hollywood that day when she hit a part of the course that had been patched," Polanco said. "She lost some momentum there, and it might have made a difference. But that's only an excuse, and excuses are for losers."

Like Royal Copenhagen, Island Escape seems primed to emerge among the local leaders of the 3-year-old filly grass division. She won a small stakes at Turf Paradise last winter and was a respectable fourth in the Railbird Stakes at Hollywood, in addition to a third in the WinStar Sunland Park Oaks, all on the main track.

"Those were good races, but when we put her on the turf it was a big difference," said Polanco, referring to Island Escape's close second in the Golden Poppy at Golden Gate Fields, followed by the Flawlessly. "It looks like we will keep her there for a while."

If nothing else, Island Escape had a great role model for versatility right in her own barn. Polanco also trains Island Fashion for Everest, and they nearly took the Mabee Handicap last weekend, nipped at the line by Amorama.

"I was heartbroken," Polanco said. "She always runs so hard, no matter what we ask."

They have asked a lot. Island Fashion has become a throwback to the days when the top racehorses did not suffer from typecasting. She has made a name for herself going short or long on both dirt and grass, at a variety of tracks, and even did herself proud by running second to males in the 2004 Santa Anita Handicap.

"That's the beauty of her," Polanco said. "We've got so many choices. I don't really think she has a best distance. She only has to be 100 percent and she will give you everything."