07/02/2003 11:00PM

American Oaks quite an encore


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the American Oaks made a glorious first impression one year ago. It attracted an international field, and produced a thrilling and controversial finish, with Megahertz being placed first upon the disqualification of Dublino.

So what will Hollywood Park do for an encore? How about bringing in a Group 1 winner from Italy, a Group 2 winner from Italy, a Group 1-placed performer from Ireland, graded stakes winners now based in Maryland, New York, Kentucky, and California, and the runner-up in this year's Kentucky Oaks.

For the second straight year, the American Oaks has lured 14 3-year-old fillies to go 1 1/4 miles on Hollywood's turf course for a $750,000 purse. Santa Catarina, the second-place finisher in the Kentucky Oaks, might be favored, but she has never raced on turf, a potential disadvantage considering that every other runner has raced on turf, and 12 of those 13 have victories on grass.

"The purse more than makes a statement," said trainer Tony Reinstedler, who has brought Regret Stakes winner Sand Springs from Kentucky in search of her fourth consecutive victory. "But it's not just that. It's the way Hollywood has done everything. It's going to be a great show. You get the best 3-year-old fillies together, and away we go."

The Americans Oaks is part of an outstanding card that also features two graded stakes races, a stakes-quality allowance race, and a 2-year-old maiden race featuring some precocious prospects from top barns. Avanzado and Joey Franco head the field in the Grade 1, $300,000 Triple Bend Breeders' Cup Handicap at seven furlongs. Little Treasure and Southern Oasis are among the contenders in the Grade 3, $100,000 Royal Heroine Stakes on turf. Sky Jack, last year's Hollywood Gold Cup winner, meets General Challenge and the comebacking Like a Hero in the sixth race, a $62,000 classified allowance. Trainers Bob Baffert and Richard Mandella unveil well-regarded 2-year-olds in the third race.

The American Oaks is the fifth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Pacific, and thus will be the first leg of a guaranteed $1 million Pick Six. It also is the featured race on the final telecast of the four-week series on CBS, which begins at 5 p.m. Eastern and also includes the Suburban Handicap from Belmont Park and the Firecracker Breeders' Cup Handicap from Churchill Downs.

Santa Catarina won the Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks in her last start. Baffert, her trainer, said the key with Santa Catarina is having her relax early. "If she relaxes this time like last time, she can go a mile and a quarter," Baffert said.

Baffert also sends out Atlantic Ocean, who owns a win and a second in two grass starts, both at Hollywood. "She's much, much better on turf," Baffert said.

Reinstedler's filly, Sand Springs, has won her last three starts in front-running fashion, all since returning from a five-month layoff, all since Mark Guidry took over as her jockey.

"She had a lot of talent as a 2-year-old, but she was mentally unstable," Reinstedler said. "After she bolted at Churchill, we gave her a long time off. She came together mentally and physically in Florida this winter at Palm Meadows. She's got a lot of talent. You just need a rider who doesn't mess with her."

Meridiana was the upset winner of the Group 1 Italian Oaks in her last start and might be the most accomplished of the invaders from Europe. Golden Nepi was the beaten favorite in the Italian Oaks. She won the Group 2 Italian 1000 Guineas in her prior start.

Dimitrova was a close third in the Group 1 Irish 1000 Guineas in her last start after winning her first two starts of the year.

Liska has the look of a live longshot. She was third in a Group 3 stakes race in France in her last start, has finished in the money in all three of her races, and was imported by trainer Laura de Seroux, who brought a similarly lightly raced filly into last year's American Oaks. Her name was Dublino.

The field

American Oaks

Purse: $750,000; 1 1/4 miles (turf)

1FortuitousV. Espinoza 15-1
2Atlantic OceanP. Valenzuela8-1
3MeridianaT. Baze6-1
4Santa CatarinaG. Stevens4-1
5Star VegaR. Warren20-1
6Golden NepiJ. Valdivia Jr.20-1
7LiskaK. Desormeaux7-2
8Go for GlamourI. Puglisi20-1
9Personal LegendC. Nakatani15-1
10DimitrovaP. Smullen5-2
11Gal O GalC. DeCarlo30-1
12Welcome MilleniumA. Solis12-1
13Sand SpringsM. Guidry30-1
14AchnasheenG. Almeida30-1

* All starters carry 121 pounds

* Odds by Michael Hammersly

* Television: Saturday, 5-6 p.m. (Eastern), CBS