03/09/2006 12:00AM

Dollase invades old home turf

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The Santa Anita winter meet was once a haven for any number of first-class East Coast outfits. Trainers like Hirsch Jacobs, Jim Maloney, Eddie Neloy, Pancho Martin, Angel Penna, David Whiteley, Sylvester Veitch, William Preston King, and Evan Shipman Jackson would set up shop for the season and make their presence felt, giving the locals a run for their money and fans a chance to gauge Eastern form. At the very least, they had real cool names.

Today, it's the Wally Dollase stable that passes for an East Coast invader. Once a California regular, with firm West Coast roots in terms of both racing and family, the 68-year-old Wisconsin native turned expatriate in the last year and has found himself a new Kentucky home, a fresh pool of clients, and the beginnings of a bona fide drawl, although his "y'all" is still pretty lame.

"At my age I wanted to try a new territory, have new fun, meet new people," Dollase explained after Santa Anita training hours Thursday. "And if you're part of anything horsewise in Kentucky, you're a pretty happy camper.

"I hate to say this, but the people back there are all pleasant, they say good morning, and I've made some real good friends among the trainers," Dollase went on. "It doesn't feel quite so intensely competitive all the time, compared to out here, where it's almost a dog-eat-dog kind of thing. Maybe I feel that way because it's the first year I've done it, and it's still new. But it's always a pleasure to be working with these horses, so why not the people, too?"

Dollase's circuit includes Keeneland and Churchill Downs in the spring and early summer, then Saratoga, Belmont, and back to Keeneland in the fall. He decided to winter in Southern California, and he has brought with him a stable that leans toward allowance and stakes horses that are beginning to pop up in headline events.

Dollase is no stranger to the Santa Anita limelight. Among his major local wins have been the San Juan Capistrano, the Strub, the La Canada, the Malibu, the Las Virgenes, the San Fernando, and two editions each of the Santa Maria, San Rafael, San Luis Rey, and San Luis Obispo.

He also won the Santa Margarita Handicap in 1997 with Jewel Princess in a field that included subsequent Eclipse Award champion Hidden Lake. On Saturday, he will be sending out Bending Strings in the 69th running of the Santa Margarita, while on Sunday, Dollase tackles the Santa Anita Oaks with the lightly raced Sweet Belle.

Bending Strings finished second to Alphabet Kisses in the La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita last winter, while trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, then returned to her Eastern base to knock heads with the likes of Ashado, Stellar Jayne, and Indian Vale. Since moving to Dollase's care last summer, Bending Strings's best race was a 4 1/2-length score in the Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs, after which she skidded to a near stop on a frozen Churchill surface in the Falls City Handicap on Nov. 24. That was her last race.

Dollase concedes that Bending Strings will need to kick things up a notch if she is to be competitive in a Santa Margarita lineup that includes such thoroughly tested mares as Star Parade, Dream of Summer, and Hollywood Story. Add to that the specter of a major rainstorm that is predicted for the weekend.

"She's doing great, and she's exceptionally bright," Dollase said. "When I got back to California I gave her a month on the grass up at Tommy Town Farm [in the Santa Ynez Valley]. I don't know about coming back on an off track, but she's a real pro. If anybody can handle it, it would be her."

Dollase is giving off more positive vibes for Sunday's Oaks, rain or shine. Sweet Belle has run only three times, with a second and two wins to her name, and both victories have come at one mile, compared to the 1 1/16 miles of the Oaks.

"I think she can be exceptional," Dollase said. "She's got a real good mind, and she's perfect as an individual, although she's not one of those big, strong rascals. She's very feminine, very athletic, and she's never had a blemish."

Dollase trained Deputy Commander, the sire of Sweet Belle, to win the Super Derby and Travers in 1997.

"She's typical of the Deputy Commanders," he noted. "When they first came around, a lot of people were running them early as 2-year-olds, and they couldn't get out of their own way. He was the same way. I took my time with him, staying out of the Kentucky Derby. Then he just got better as he got older."

The Santa Anita Oaks - formerly the Santa Susana Stakes - has been won in recent years by champions Sweet Catomine, Surfside, Serena's Song, and Eliza, as well as Sharp Cat, Excellent Meeting, Lakeway, and Lite Light. To be included among such company, Sweet Belle must deal with Las Virgenes Stakes winner Balance, Starlet winner Diplomat Lady, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Wild Fit.

"There are two or three in there who are among the best in the country, while mine is a question mark," Dollase said. "One thing is certain, though. I've been lucky with the family."