02/11/2005 12:00AM

Classy guys deserve Grade 1

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Sunday at Santa Anita Park, the first two-turn Grade 1 race of the year will be offered for older fillies and mares when the Santa Maria Handicap is run for the 49th consecutive year at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

Fair warning, though. For those who take the graded race system seriously, brace yourselves for a shock.

A victory in the Santa Maria by defending champ Star Parade, or Bayakoa Handicap winner Hollywood Story, Oak Tree Mile winner Musical Chimes, or the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap winner Miss Loren would hardly be a surprise.

But if Festival uncorks the same run that took charge of the Dahlia Handicap at Hollywood Park in late December, history could be made. The Santa Maria would be the first Grade 1 victory in North America for trainer Paddy Gallagher, jockey Danny Sorenson, and the entire breeding industry of Japan.

Of course, it did not require the Graded Stakes Committee to validate the Santa Maria as a first-class event. The race has been won by such champions and Hall of Famers as Silver Spoon, Gamely, Dark Mirage, Gallant Bloom, Turkish Trousers, Susan's Girl, Glorious Song, Bayakoa, Paseana, and Serena's Song. If there is a good older filly or mare in the neighborhood, chances are she will show up for the Santa Maria.

As for Gallagher, 48, and Sorenson, 46, they are two of the reasons racing writers in Southern California have such an easy job. The fact that neither has yet to hang a Grade 1 win by his name simply adds testimony to how arbitrary the system truly is.

The trainer is Northern Ireland's finest wit, reliable for a cracking good joke a day, rain or shine. Sorenson, who set a Longacres riding record at age 21, is a first-class horseman of strong opinions who has spent entirely too much of his career recovering from the effects of racing accidents, including a broken vertebra and fractured shoulder that wiped out most of 2003.

Festival can sympathize. Her 2003 season back in Japan was a disaster, and 2004 started out no better, prompting her owner and breeder, Yushiyoki Ito, to give California a try.

Gallagher has been plying his trade at the top of the game for more than 20 years, first as assistant to John Sullivan and Bill Shoemaker, then on his own since Shoemaker's retirement from training at the end of 1997. Sullivan and Gallagher came within a whisker of upsetting John Henry with The Bart in the first Arlington Million, in 1981, while Gallagher's Shoemaker days included victories in such prestigious events as the Beverly D., the Strub Stakes, the Beverly Hills Handicap, and the Hong Kong International Bowl.

Since 1998, Gallagher has maintained a respected public stable that has taken down such prizes as the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf, the $300,000 Del Mar Derby, and a $300,000 Strub Stakes of his own last year with Domestic Dispute.

Before settling into Gallagher's Santa Anita barn, Festival could be found at the San Luis Rey Downs training center with Laura de Seroux. Emmanuel de Seroux, the trainer's husband, manages Ito's North American bloodstock interests.

"She spent a few months with Laura," de Seroux said, "but she was the kind of mare who benefited from being trained at the racetrack. She had a history of not shipping well, especially that last year or so. Something must have happened to her at some point, because she became a little bit apprehensive about the whole preparation for the race. So the shorter we can make that time the better."

Gallagher took Festival at face value, as a good-sized, strong older mare with proven ability to win races.

"To be honest with you, I didn't know much about her when she arrived," Gallagher said. "If anything, she was a little bit temperamental at the beginning. But then she kind of settled down, and started to enjoy walking out there with the pony."

Enter Sorenson, who first encountered Festival in a small turf stakes down the hill at Santa Anita last fall. They were 73-1.

"Paddy didn't know what to expect," Sorenson said. "He hoped we could get her back, let her pass some horses and get a good experience. Then she literally beats the gate open, which completely caught me off guard. Most foreign horses, no matter what foreign country they come from, generally aren't that sharp out of the gate."

Sorenson was able to get Festival back and make a decent run late. The experience translated well to the longer Dahlia, in which Festival lagged far back early then came running to win by six.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world to get her back, but she has been responsive," Sorenson said. "And the entire Gallagher barn is good at doing that. He likes his horses to be comfortable and settled, whether they're 20 back or a half-length back.

"Are we good enough to win Sunday? Who knows? My expectations of her are to do it the same way she did in the Dahlia - settle down, relax, stride strong, and then finish well. If that's good enough to win it, we win it."

And if they do, history will be made.