07/02/2008 11:00PM

Enjoy it while you still can


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The ownership of Hollywood Park recently assured the California Horse Racing Board that they would keep running through the end of 2009. Probably. Unless for some reason they don't.

This is rueful news - confirming that the end, if not in stone, is at least in sight - and it is especially sad in light of the stellar Hollywood program being offered to the national marketplace on Saturday. Led by the $750,000 American Oaks and the $750,000 CashCall Mile, there will be five graded stakes among the 11 races presented. For those dedicated enough to show up at the track, still thrilled at the sight of horses in the flesh, there is barbecue in the paddock and ample parking.

As it stands, with Hollywood's ultimate fate in limbo, such time-tested events as the Vanity Handicap, the Triple Bend Handicap, and Hollywood Juvenile Championship soon could be orphans. At least they had a great run.

Back in ancient times, when 2-year-olds were regarded as future 4-year-olds, the Juvenile Championship was won by animals such as Tomy Lee, Malicious, Royal Owl, Affirmed, and Desert Wine. A collection of the Vanity's top names looks like a Hall of Fame starter set, featuring Azeri, Nashoba's Key, Paseana, Bayakoa, Convenience, Gamely, Silver Spoon, Two Lea, Next Move, and Busher. As for the Triple Bend, it might be a little tough to completely endorse its Grade 1 ranking, but past winners like Messenger of Song, Summer Time Guy, Sabona, and Bedside Promise lend a heritage of quality to the cause.

Zenyatta, she of the unbeaten record and "who me?" demeanor, is the only bonafide national star ready to appear on Saturday's card. In terms of numbers, figs, sheets, sun signs, and Q ratings, nothing touches the big filly with a 10-foot pole. Still, Tough Tiz's Sis is one of those persistent club fighters with a good jab who rarely gives up without a fight, while Sealy Hill comes to town chock full of Canadian class.

The CashCall Mile still has that new-race smell. This is the third year of a three-year commitment to the race by Paul Reddam's money-lending company, and it is disappointing that only seven mares could be mustered to run, none of them his. Blame it on the price of oil, the fires in the north, or the shakeup in the John McCain campaign. At least the handicapping is a challenge and the outcome is very much in doubt. Lady of Venice, the defending champ, just shaded 1:33 for the mile on the Belmont grass in the Just a Game Stakes and lost. She will face Ventura, the filly who beat her that day, along with Diamond Diva, who gets to run what is clearly her favorite distance.

As for the American Oaks, its place in California's history is assured, even if its runnings are numbered. Now in its seventh time around, at 1 1/4 miles on reliably firm turf, the Oaks always has seemed to be just the kind of race that owners, breeders, and fans should adore.

Martin Panza, Hollywood Park's racing secretary, has been given a stout budget to hustle Oaks runners from all over the globe. As a result, fillies from Ireland, Japan, Australia, England, and France have journeyed to California to spice up the field, lending a rare international feel to what is becoming an increasingly provincial California product.

This year's Oaks has four representatives from Europe, including Carribean Sunset, a near miss in this year's Irish 1000 Guineas, and Satan's Circus, who split the field in the Prix de Diane. Unfortunately, there is no representation this time around from the far reaches of the Pacific rim because of quarantine restrictions on racehorses from Australia and Japan, which is too bad. Japanese fillies have finished first (Cesario) and second twice (Dance in the Mood and Asahi Rising), while the Australian filly Anamato was an admirable third last year behind Panty Raid.

"Tall Poppy, the winner of the Japanese Oaks, was coming, and so was Asian Winds, who won four of her last five, including their Victoria Mile," Panza said. "But when a Japanese horse apparently caused an influenza outbreak in Australia, Japan's ministry of agriculture put a rule in place that requires a 60-day quarantine before one of their horses could leave the country."

The Oaks field also may have been impacted by a classic domestic problem - competitive stakes programming. Where once the Hollywood race ruled as unique in its place on the North American calendar, choices have arisen to tempt East Coast horsemen away from California. For 3-year-old fillies on grass, Monmouth Park now has the $150,000 Boiling Springs Handicap the week before the American Oaks, while Colonial Downs offers the $200,000 Virginia Oaks two weeks later.

"It's disappointing, but it's human nature," Panza said. "If something works, you'll hear, 'That's a good idea. Let's have a race like that.' Then two or three years down the road the idea doesn't work for anyone because there's too many options."

Toss the problem on the pile with the others that need to be addressed by some kind of national, cooperative effort. In the meantime, enjoy the American Oaks while it is still around.