05/17/2002 12:00AM

Vesta takes Miss Preakness

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In the Smart Halo Stakes at Pimlico on April 27, Joseph Aquilino wanted his speedy filly Vesta to practice rating and maybe get a piece of a stakes placing. She did, coming from just off the lead on the turn to win going away by six lengths in a smart final time of 1:10 1/5.

In the Grade 3, $100,000 Miss Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on Thursday, Aquilino wanted her to rate again. The race was loaded with speed. Unfortunately for Aquilino, Vesta did nothing of the sort. She jumped to the lead right out of the gate and scorched a first quarter in 22.26. Aquilino winced. "She's going too fast," he said.

Fortunately for Aquilino, the headstrong Vesta never let up. She led every step of the way for the remainder of the race to win in final time of 1:10.25, holding off the late charge of Willa On the Move. A New Twist, the 1.40-1 favorite, finished fifth in the field of six.

In the winner's circle, Mario Pino, the squeaky-clean winning jockey, beamed.

"The whole strategy went out the window when she broke," Pino said. "When she left the gate she was two in front, and I said there's no strategy anymore. Let's go."

It was the third straight win for Vesta, who is owned Five K Farm, and her first graded stakes victory. Her record now stands at five wins from 10 starts, and the win ran her earnings to $179,734.

The third choice in the short field, Vesta paid $7.40 to win and keyed a $35.60 exacta. The $2 trifecta paid $106.20.

Aquilino said he will likely ship Vesta back to New York, where the trainer is based. The six-furlong Prioress Stakes at Belmont on July 6 would seem to be a likely spot, but Aquilino hedged. "We'll gather our thoughts together, talk with the owners, see how she ships back home, and we'll look for something maybe at Belmont."

John Kimmel, the trainer of A New Twist, said she never "ran one step." Uncharacteristically, the speedy filly, who ran second in both the seven-furlong Forward Gal Stakes and six-furlong Valley Stream Stakes, hesitated at the start and never went for the lead.

"Until I get her back to the barn and assess what happened, I won't really know what to think," Kimmel said. "But she didn't seem to be herself out there."

On paper, Willa On the Move seemed to be the only closer, and she lived up to her reputation, closing from fifth position to make up a lot of ground in the middle of the track. It was another 3 1/2 lengths back to Shameful, the second choice.