06/10/2002 11:00PM

Volga's season debut a softie

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Volga, a Group 3 winner in France, tops a compact field of filly and mare grass runners in Thursday's $50,000 allowance feature at Belmont Park.

Five entered the third-level allowance, which will be run at 1 1/8 miles over Belmont's inner turf course and is the fifth race on the card.

Volga obviously will be pointed to bigger and better races down the road, but trainer Christophe Clement selected this spot as a starting point for his filly, who hasn't raced since finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf in October.

Volga, owned by Joseph Allen, has been fairly consistent in her brief career and owns a record of 3-2-0 from seven starts. Before her Breeders' Cup effort, Volga, a daughter of Caerleon, was narrowly beaten for the win by a longshot, Choc Ice, in the Grade 1 E. P. Taylor at Woodbine.

Volga, the likely favorite in Thursday's race, should have no problems handling the field, and has strong connections on her side. Jose Santos, tied for third in the standings with Edgar Prado after Sunday's card, will ride the filly.

Twenty of Clement's 33 starters at the meet have finished among the top three, including seven winners.

Volga, who was closing stoutly at the finish in her two American starts, drew the rail in what appears to be a paceless race.

Volga's chief rival is Unbridled Vice, who has been competing at this condition since October. Unbridled Vice, a 5-year-old trained by Shug McGaughey, finished a closing third in a 1 1/16-mile grass race on May 30.

The Clement-trained Calista, a 1 1/2-length winner of that race, is likely headed to a stakes for her next start.

Unbridled Vice drew post 3 and will be ridden by John Velazquez.

Libretto finished seventh in a race at this level here on May 10. Libretto has run some decent races on the turf, but two of her three lifetime wins have come on the dirt, including two on an off track.

Thunderstorms are in the forecast for Wednesday, so a switch from turf to dirt is possible.

Richard Migliore rides Libretto, who is trained by Joe Orseno.

Kawajlain, a New York-bred, is without a win in 12 starts on the grass.

Earlier this year, Kawajlain, won three consecutive starts on the dirt at Aqueduct. Michael Sedlacek, who recently began training Kawajlain, is obviously hoping the race will be rained off the turf.

Rose Esther, another New York-bred, hasn't won a race since October 2000.

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