12/09/2005 1:00AM

Dream of Summer can grab the reins

Dream of Summer won the Cal Cup Matron during her solid, under-the-radar campaign.

PHOENIX - The surface of the older female division has been rough. Elders like Ashado, Pleasant Home, Stellar Jayne, and Pampered Princess are off to the breeding shed.

The 3-year-old filly division has been a complete mess. Injuries and/or retirement have taken Sweet Catomine, Sis City, Summerly, Round Pond, Splendid Blended, Spun Sugar, and Smuggler from the scene. Only recent upstart Indian Vale is around to carry the flag.

But while those waters have been choppy, Dream of Summer has calmly gone about her business just under the surface, not getting any attention, not making any waves. She has simply continued her good form - form that has seen her good enough to beat the best when on her game, as she did in last April's Grade 1 Apple Blossom, and that figures to send her off favored in Sunday's Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Trainer Juan Garcia has done a wonderful job with Dream of Summer, a 6-year-old daughter of Siberian Summer. She boasts a strong record of 10 wins from 17 starts and more than $1 million in earnings. What's more, she appears to be good as ever right now after a bit of a hiccup last spring.

Her Apple Blossom win was certainly a watershed event for her. Long considered merely a good California-bred, Dream of Summer just missed winning the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita (by a nose) and rode that form to Oaklawn, where she battled gamely and prevailed by a neck over a field that included Grade 1 winner Star Parade and returning champion filly Ashado. Dream of Summer then returned to Southern California to face California-breds in the B. Thoughtful and appeared to have the field at her mercy, but she wasn't the same mare. She stalked the pace but never really made a run, ending up fourth. That dull effort was a hangover from her previous races. Dream of Summer ran her guts out in the Santa Margarita, shipped across the country, ran her guts out again in the Apple Blossom, then shipped back across the country and just 15 days later tried the B. Thoughtful. She was worn out, and it showed.

So Garcia did right by her - he realized she needed time off. Dream of Summer was freshened a few months, and Garcia found a great spot for her return - the Grade 3 Gardenia at Ellis Park. Rested, fit, and ready, Dream of Summer toyed with those foes. In fact, she won so easily that Garcia dove back into the deep end, sending her to Belmont for the Grade 1 Beldame. But instead of her pressing the issue, this time her speed had her on the lead - and after dueling hard to the top of the lane, she faltered to finish sixth.

Tactics, more than ability, led to her downfall that day. Garcia regrouped. He brought her home to Southern California, and after nearly five weeks off, she resurfaced in the California Cup Matron. This was no walk in the park. Dream of Summer stalked the pace, surged to the lead in midstretch, and drew off to win nicely. Her immediate victim was House of Fortune, a Grade 2 stakes winner who came right back to win impressively in the Cat's Cradle Handicap at Hollywood last week. In third was Proposed, a highly talented filly who had won 3 of her previous 4.

But Dream of Summer handled them and handled them nicely. She looks every bit back on her game, and while she goes from facing California-breds to facing open Grade 2 foes, the Bayakoa doesn't really figure any tougher than the Cal Cup Matron. And with the older female division still smarting from retirements and defections, Dream of Summer can make hay until some new challengers emerge. It starts Sunday.

Hands off the Crown

I'm somewhat perplexed by all this hand-wringing over the Triple Crown. Yes, it's sad Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones are gone, but that's the business we're in. These are fragile animals indeed. Should we now move back the Travers since Point Given got hurt after that?

Does adding a week here or there to the Triple Crown ensure that these animals will last longer? I doubt it. The Triple Crown isn't to blame for so many defections. I don't believe it's pedigree, either. I think it's the way horses are trained. Horses used to race into shape. Now, these huge price tags have horsemen being overly cautious. Mere workouts might not be the answer to giving a horse - particularly a young horse - enough bottom so that he or she can get through the grueling Triple Crown and go on to be effective and sound at 4. There is so much residual value, too, for these expensive runners that horsemen don't want to risk defeat.

In the case of horses like Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones, bad luck simply got them. Would Afleet Alex have stumbled less or been hurt less by that Preakness genuflection had it been a week later?

Are we so antsy for a Triple Crown winner we're willing to lower the bridge instead of raising the river? I guarantee you, many who now call for changes to the Triple Crown will be first in line to slam the next Triple Crown winner because he or she didn't go through the same ring of fire as Citation, Secretariat, et al.

It's supposed to be hard. But beyond that, merely pushing out the Triple Crown over a longer period of time may have no effect whatsoever on longevity.