08/28/2003 12:00AM

Victory U. S. A.: Baffert's newest star?

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Even for a stable annually loaded with 2-year-olds, Victory U. S. A. has been a standout for trainer Bob Baffert.

When she won a maiden race by 6 1/2 lengths in her debut on Aug. 3, she quickly drew comparisons to previous Baffert-trained female stakes winners such as Chilukki and Silverbulletday.

Part of that can be credited to the enthusiasm of a well-known and vocal trainer. The proof could arrive as soon as Saturday when Victory U. S. A. starts as a heavy favorite in Saturday's $250,000 Del Mar Debutante for 2-year-old fillies.

"They've got to prove they belong, but I love the way she's training," Baffert said.

Run over seven furlongs, the Grade 1 Debutante is an important prep for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

The Debutante drew six runners. Like Victory U. S. A., Halfbridled and Shadow of Mine won maiden races in their last start. Hollywood Story was second to Victory U.S.A. on Aug. 3. Solar Fire and Wind Flow were third and fourth in the Sorrento Stakes on Aug. 9. None of the entrants is a stakes winner.

Halfbridled is considered the biggest threat to Victory U. S. A.

Trained by Richard Mandella, she was also an impressive winner in her debut, over 5 1/2 furlongs on July 27. Breaking from the rail in a field of six, she circled the field from last to win by an authoritative 4 1/2 lengths.

The win was a remarkable show of poise for a first-time starter. Mandella said he believes Halfbridled is hardly a filly void of speed, but he's not anxious to change her style.

"I don't know that she has to run like that," Mandella said. "It was over 5 1/2 and she wants a mile. I don't want her to change too much because she did so well at that."

Even with her best rally, Halfbridled may not be able to catch Victory U. S. A.

Victory U. S. A. did not set exceptionally fast fractions in her maiden win - 22.45 and 45.46 seconds - but was clear by 1 1/2 lengths with a quarter-mile remaining and was hand-ridden to the finish.

"I was hoping to see that," Baffert said.

Baffert has won the Debutante five times in the last eight years, including wins by such notable runners as Excellent Meeting (1998) and Chilukki (1999). He also finished second twice during that span.

THE FIELD

Del Mar Debutante

Purse: $250,000; 7 furlongs; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1HalfbridledJ. Krone1166-5
2Solar FireV. Espinoza1168-1
3Wind FlowC. Nakatani11615-1
4Shadow of MineJ. Valdivia Jr11620-1
5Hollywood StoryP. Valenzuela11412-1
6Victory U. S. A.M. Smith1161-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly