10/03/2003 12:00AM

Wonder Again leads small, well-matched field


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Normally when an elite horse is withdrawn in the days leading up to a rich stakes race, a flood of new horses, with their trainers eager to capitalize on the missing star, are thrown into the mix.

Sunday's Grade 2 WinStar Galaxy at Keeneland is a rare exception. Even with trainer Christophe Clement passing the race with Voodoo Dancer, and with defending champ Owsley being retired recently, only six fillies and mares were entered in the $500,000 race.

Although short on numbers, the WinStar Galaxy remains an intriguing grass race with many questions to ponder. Can Wonder Again, a Grade 1 winner, be effective racing on two weeks' rest after a hard-fought Noble Damsel victory? Is Bien Nicole legitimate on the basis of her longshot runner-up finish in the Beverly D.? And can stakes winners Apasionata Sonata, Approach, New Economy, and Volga rise to this level after competing in easier races for much of 2003?

These questions should help make the Galaxy a fair betting race, even with a small number of entrants. Wonder Again will likely start as the favorite on the heels of a neck victory in the Noble Damsel at Belmont on Sept. 20, when she earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

Although she had not won this year prior to that race, she had raced competitively. She was third in the Just a Game Breeders' Cup with a 103 Beyer, and fifth, beaten less than three lengths, behind Voodoo Dancer and Heat Haze in Saratoga's Grade 1 Diana.

The Galaxy marks Wonder Again's second race over the Keeneland course. Last fall, she started as the

2-1 favorite in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup but struggled, finishing fifth to Riskaverse - a filly she had previously beaten in the Grade 1 Garden City Breeders' Cup.

Trainer James Toner is optimistic that, with a well-spaced 2003 schedule, Wonder Again can handle the return on short rest. Edgar Prado rides.

In contrast to Wonder Again, Bien Nicole returns following a break of more than a month and a half. That spacing was by design to leave her in a position to pursue the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf if her performance in the Galaxy warrants it, trainer Donnie Von Hemel said.

"We were thrilled with the way she ran" in the Beverly D., he said, referring to her 1 1/4-length loss to Heat Haze. "Although she had not competed against that kind of competition before, we thought she would do well and she did. Hopefully she can run as well in this race."

The late-running styles of her opponents should play in her favor. There is little pace in the 1 3/16-mile Galaxy, and, blessed with natural speed, Bien Nicole appears in a position to race uncontested on the lead, as she did in the Beverly D. Regular rider Don Pettinger has the mount.

Others looking to run down Bien Nicole will be Apasionata Sonata, winner of the Kentucky Cup Ladies at Kentucky Downs; Approach, a stakes-winning British invader; and New Economy and Volga, a pair of graded stakes winners.

Volga, making her third start of 2003, rates as the top threat to Wonder Again and Bien Nicole. She was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf in 2001, and fourth in the Beverly D. last year. Based on her two efforts leading up to the Galaxy, she appears to be slowly regaining her peak form from past years.