06/30/2006 12:00AM

America's one hope in Oaks


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Grab your darts and dust off the Ouija board, folks. It's time once again for that early summertime exercise in handicapping potpourri, better known as the American Oaks, offering a purse of $750,000 for whichever of the eight 3-year-old fillies entered in Sunday's event can get 1 1/4 miles on firm ground faster than the other seven.

Now celebrating its fifth birthday, the American Oaks is a true and proper Oaks, demanding speed and stamina, and the class to muster those attributes when surrounded by Thoroughbreds of similar talents. The Sunshine Millions Oaks, at six furlongs in January, is not an Oaks. This is an Oaks.

As usual, horseplayers will be asked to sort through form lines from all over the globe, including England, Canada, France, New York, California, and once again Japan, which is represented on Sunday by Asahi Rising. A granddaughter of Sunday Silence, Asahi Rising will try to give her nation a second straight American Oaks, after Cesario's runaway in 2005.

Although she never ran again, Cesario will forever occupy a place in racing lore as the first Thoroughbred bred, owned, and trained by Japanese horsemen to win a Grade 1 North American event. Of course, if it was going to happen, the American Oaks would seem like the most obvious setting. After its first four runnings, the race has been decidedly un-American.

The first Oaks, in 2002, came down to a nail-biter between Dublino and Megahertz, a pair of fillies who had done most of their racing in France. Dublino, bred in Kentucky, hit the wire first but was disqualified in favor of the British-bred Megahertz.

Oaks II went to Dimitrova, also bred in Kentucky but otherwise Irish to the core, trained by Dermot Weld. The following year it was Ticker Tape, bred in England, over Dance in the Mood, who represented Japan's first appearance. In 2005, Cesario got it right.

Besides Japan's Asahi Rising, this year's Oaks field features three British fillies (Attima, Foxysox, and Proxenia), a pair of Irish lasses (Sol Mi Fa and Galileo's Star), and a Kentucky-bred, Arravale, who has done all her racing at Woodbine. That leaves Wait a While, a daughter of Maria's Mon owned by Alan and Karen Cohen and trained by Todd Pletcher, as the only through and through American filly taking a shot at the 2006 American Oaks. Cue the flags.

Two days before the race, Wait a While was killing time in a roomy, thickly bedded stall at the end of the Gary Mandella shedrow, occupying the north half of Hollywood's Barn 50. Traveling groom Luis Velazquez was standing watch, while assistant trainer Jenny DePasquale made sure a visiting media wretch didn't get too close for her filly's comfort.

"She settled in right away," DePasquale said. "But she can be a little sharp. She likes to look around a lot and check things out."

Wait a While responded by poking her gray head over the webbing and dropping her tongue.

"She does like attention," DePasquale noted. "And she loves to be out and around. This morning, one of the hotwalkers in the barn here walked by her with a shank. She heard the shank and started nickering for him to take her out."

Like most of upper middle management in the Pletcher organization, DePasquale needs to keep a bagged pack most of the time, ready to pounce when a stakes opportunity arises. The weekend before the Oaks, she was up Toronto way at Woodbine, where Team Pletcher nearly captured the Queen's Plate with the lightly raced colt Sterwins. DePasquale's next stop is likely to be the Summit of Speed at Calder.

"This is my first time in California," DePasquale said, then corrected herself. "First time with a horse for a race. I lived in Fresno for two years, when my husband was in the restaurant-hotel business. Fresno's still part of California, isn't it?"

Technically, yes. In spirit, though, Fresno is much closer to Kansas than the westside of L.A.

"I like it here," DePasquale said, "except for that 405 freeway. I thought New York traffic was bad until I tried driving it yesterday."

Although Wait a While's first win came on the grass, she has hit the board in such noteworthy main-track events as the Ashland, the Demoiselle, and the Bonnie Miss, and she wasn't exactly embarrassed in the Kentucky Oaks, when she finished fourth and was moved up a notch on the disqualification of Bushfire.

When the going gets really nasty, Wait a While seems to lap the field. Her three stakes victories have come over a Belmont turf course labeled good (the Miss Grillo), a sloppy Belmont main track (the Sands Point), and a sloppy main track at Gulfstream Park (the Davona Dale).

"I guess we wouldn't mind if a monsoon hit in time for the race," said DePasquale, who was making her first Hollywood Park foray. "But there doesn't seem much chance of that."

No, not much. But there is every chance that an all-American girl could finally win the American Oaks.