04/13/2006 11:00PM

All hail hill course's new queen


ARCADIA, Calif. - According to company literature, the Maserati Cambiocorsa is powered by a 4.2- litre, eight-cylinder, 90-degree V-type aspirated engine that is "enhanced by timing gear featuring two overhead, chain-driven camshafts per bank, four valves per cylinder driven by hydraulic tappets and inlet camshafts equipped with continuously variable timing."

The equine version of the Cambiocorsa, on the other hand, wears earmuffs.

Any similarities between the Italian sports car and the 4-year-old Thoroughbred filly are entirely coincidental, but increasingly apparent, as Cambiocorsa goes for her seventh lifetime victory in seven starts down Santa Anita's turning hillside turf course in the Las Cienegas Handicap on Sunday.

Purchased as a highly-touted Barretts May sale 2-year-old for $90,000 - about the same as a new Cambiocorsa off the Maserati line - Cambiocorsa is a daughter of Avenue of Flags and the Afleet mare Ultrafleet, which fits, since the other Cambiocorsa can generate up to 390 horsepower at 7,000 rpm's.

For her part, Cambiocorsa (available in gray only) is rapidly establishing credentials that threaten to place her among the all time great names associated with the unique hillside course.

"Champagne Bid is the one I remember," said Doug O'Neill, who trains Cambiocorsa for Leatherman Racing. "Randy Winick had him. I was in school at the time, but every time I saw he was in I knew he was going to win."

Good call. Champagne Bid, a son of Bold Bidder, was a foal of 1979 who won two runnings of the San Simeon Handicap and five other races down the hill.

The hillside gallery also includes runners such as Baffle, Century's Envoy, Matching, Bel's Starlet, and El Cielo, the all-time champ, with 10 wins down the hill between October 1998 and February 2003.

Jon Court, who is enjoying his best Southern California meet, has been Cambiocorsa's partner for four of her six wins. He rides again on Sunday.

"She's extremely fast, and she can carry it," said Court, holding on to fifth in the local standings. "When they've got that, and they take to the turf, it's a tough combination on the hill."

There is nothing like the hillside course anywhere else in American racing. The full distance from gate to wire is actually seven feet longer than 6 1/2 furlongs. Races start on the level, then quickly begin a gentle descent before hitting another plateau. The rail turns right, then riders must cut diagonally across the wide course to prepare for the final left-hand turn that takes the field to the level of the main course.

"As far as the right hand turn and going downhill - even uphill - I was used to that from riding at Kentucky Downs," said Court, who led the brief southern Kentucky meet three times during his Midwestern career. "It's crossing the dirt that was different."

Yes the dirt, where the hillside course dead-ends at the main track and requires horses to cross a wide strip of harrowed brown loam before reaching the stretch run of the main grass oval. Animals have been known to treat the dirt's edge as the end of the earth, taking flight before one last leap into an eternal void. Others stutter and stammer, losing their action, or skew to the right like deck chairs on a listing ship.

"Some cross it well, others have a difficult time," Court noted, diplomatically. "I like to sit quiet when I'm crossing the dirt - contrary to what I was led to believe when I first came out here. It doesn't always work, but the quieter I can be and the more confidence I can instill in a horse on the approach seems to work better than me jacking him across. I've done that a few times and had them just launch, as if they're coming into a hurdle."

Between her first race at Del Mar during the summer of 2004 - when she showed early speed and stopped - and her impressive maiden win down the hill one year ago, Cambiocorsa had to deal with sore shins and a breathing problem that was solved with a simple myectomy. Once flighty and easily distracted, she has become a solid professional with five straight wins, each a virtual replay of the other.

Still, there is the issue of the earmuffs, a piece of equipment rarely seen in American racing - who can forget Gate Dancer - and an especially odd choice for a hillside runner. There is, after all, no place at Santa Anita more peaceful than the top of the hillside course.

"I've got to give credit to Mr. Barry Abrams for the earmuffs," O'Neill said of his fellow trainer. "He's one of the few guys you see out here still using them. In reality, though, she wears them more for the paddock and the post parade, to get her through all that stuff."

Not to mention all the screaming crossing the dirt.

After the Las Cienegas, Cambiocorsa will lose her best friend until October. There are no hills at Hollywood Park or Del Mar.

"I truly think that a mile won't be a problem," O'Neill said. "If it weren't for her impressive record down the hill, we probably would have already tried at a mile already.

"There was a lot of disappointment following her debut, and then a lot of excitement after that second race," O'Neill added. "Now it looks like what we saw in her as a 2-year-old might come true."