05/25/2002 12:00AM

The word on Astra: She's vulnerable


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Astra is no easy project, which makes her a fitting contender in the best race Monday at Hollywood Park.

The Grade 1 Gamely Handicap, a nine-furlong turf race for fillies and mares, highlights a complex 10-race card on which Astra's trainer, Laura de Seroux, faces a dilemma similar to that of Memorial Day bettors. "Astra is very complicated, she's a keg of TNT," said de Seroux.

The description is appropriate, because there are plenty of parimutuel fireworks in store Monday. The card includes three stakes - the Gamely (race 6), Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile (race 8), and Grade 2 Lazaro Barrera for 3-year-old sprinters (race 1). In addition, a $1 million guaranteed pick six pool is offered on races 5-10. With the possible exception of Royal Moro in the Barrera, no race includes a standout.

The $500,000 Gamely attracted only seven, but the field includes many of the country's top female grass runners. Expected pacesetter Snow Dance ships from Keeneland for John Ward; Voodoo Dancer arrives from Aqueduct, where she scored a sharp win her first start of the season for Christophe Clemente. Along with Starine, a Grade 1 winner over the course; upset-minded Old Money, and stakes winners Crazy Ensign and Verruma, the Gamely shapes up as the year's best female turf race.

The deserving highweight is Astra, a 6-year-old trying to regain her former brilliance. Transferred last summer from Simon Bray to de Seroux, Astra has overcome plenty while winning nine of 13 starts. "She has history of foot problems, and tying up," de Seroux said. "A horse like her is very complicated. You can't miss a day of training, you have to keep her feet healthy, you have to keep her running."

It has worked. Astra finished a flat third in her March comeback, her first start for de Seroux, but looked more like her old self in her second start back, winning the Grade 2 Santa Barbara by two lengths. Now it is seven weeks later and de Seroux said Astra "couldn't be doing better." Astra's last win, however, was less impressive than her Grade 1 victories on this course the last two seasons.

In winning the Santa Barbara, Astra got all the breaks. Runner-up Golden Apples was compomised by an abscess and came out of the race sick. Three others were overmatched, and the slow pace worked in Astra's favor while compromising Old Money. Astra is the right favorite for the Gamely, but she must improve. And a mare she beat last time may be poised to upset.

Old Money arrived in the U.S. with solid Australian form, having won five of 11 races there. In her first start for trainer Ron McAnally, she won a classified race at a mile, then failed to progress in two subsequent starts. She was compromised by circumstances chasing Astra last time. "I still don't know why she was so far back on such a slow pace," McAnally said. "The way she's been training, we have have to take another shot."

In fact, Old Money has worked phenomenally for the Gamely, and she is reunited with Eddie Delahoussaye, who rode her in her U.S. debut. Old Money gets a 10-pound weight break (123 to 113) from Astra. At nine furlongs, the Gamely fits Old Money, and she will have a legitimate pacesetter to chase.

Snow Dance arrived in California Friday and will try to lead the Gamely wire to wire. It won't be easy. The Hollywood turf course favored speed early in the meet, but the bias has retreated, and the best horses are winning regardless of style. While the chance of an easy lead could play to Show Dance's favor, she is not a speedball. In fact, her style is to suck the field along and sprint for home. Several other Gamely starters have a turn of foot likely to negate Snow Dance's perceived tactical advantage.