03/10/2004 1:00AM

An exceptional year for fillies

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ARCADIA, Calif. - With all due respect to the talented and headstrong boys in the band, this emerging season of 2004 is shaping up as very much the Year of the Filly.

Evidence is mounting at every turn. The results of last weekend confirmed the ongoing quality of Last Song and Society Selection in the Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream Park. Down in New Orleans, Ashado made the transition from 2-year-old ingenue to a 3-year-old of consequence by beating Victory U. S. A. in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Out in San Francisco, at Golden Gate Fields, House of Fortune turned the California Oaks into a one-horse show.

Coming up on Saturday, in the Santa Anita Oaks, the embarrassment of riches gets richer. Halfbridled, the unbeaten champion of the generation, will meet A.P. Adventure, the unbeaten challenger. Not since 1988, when Winning Colors and Goodbye Halo met for their Las Virgenes Stakes rematch, has the local Oaks been fraught with such dramatic possibilities, enhanced by the presence of Hollywood Story, Silent Sighs, and Salty Romance.

The record will show that Winning Colors won that showdown, then went on to win the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby against the best 3-year-olds her crop had to offer. Whether or not such cross-gender glory awaits one of the fillies of 2004 remains to be seen. For now, it is sufficient to know that they could end up among the best of all time, and one of them doesn't need to win the Kentucky Derby to prove it.

Of course, it never hurts. Genuine Risk elevated the fillies of 1980 to legendary status by winning the Derby that year. Even so, by the end of the season, there was lingering doubt that she was the best of her gender. Bold 'n Determined won the Kentucky Oaks and seven other stakes, and when the two fillies met in the Maskette at Belmont Park, it was the Oaks winner who beat the Derby winner by a nose.

Love Sign, who won the Alabama and beat older mares in the Beldame, added depth to the division, as did Sugar and Spice, who defeated Bold 'n Determined in the Mother Goose. The fillies of 2004, good as they are, have a ways to go before they can be mentioned in the same breath as the class of 1980.

When it comes to quality in quantity, however, they all must defer to the crop of fillies who hit the ground in 1969. By all measures - in terms of consistency, durability, longevity, and brilliance - there is ample evidence that they represented the finest concentration of female Thoroughbred talent to be found in the last 50 years.

The leader of the pack was Susan's Girl, whose career spanned five seasons and included championships at ages 3, 4, and 5. Numbered Account was not far behind, with her championship at age 2 and a dozen major stakes wins in three campaigns.

One false move from Susan's Girl, and Summer Guest would have been the champion 3-year-old of 1972. As it was, she won eight major stakes over three seasons and defeated males on both dirt in the Grey Lag Handicap and turf in the Bowling Green. Charlie Whittingham helped flesh out the all-star cast with his versatile pair of Pallisima and Le Cle, both racing for Howard and Elizabeth Keck.

After Susan's Girl and her contemporaries got through, there wasn't much left for fillies of conventional ability. While they roamed the land, a filly had to be better than good just to stay afloat.

Ron McAnally and owner Arnold Zechter are facing a potentially similar situation with their Free House filly, House of Fortune. Her lopsided victory in the 1 1/16-mile California Oaks was accomplished against just three opponents, while essentially racing against the clock. Her time of 1:41.71 was fast, but McAnally is not deceived.

"It's good for them to win like that," McAnally said Wednesday after welcoming House of Fortune back to her Santa Anita home. "It builds confidence. But I know she didn't beat that much, and the track up there is faster than down here. You could misinterpret a race like that, even if it looked impressive."

House of Fortune's winning margin over Church Editor was 17 lengths, and with its first-place purse of $45,150, the California Oaks was little more than a highly paid workout. But it served McAnally's purpose.

"She's learning more with every race, which is what a good young horse will do," McAnally said. "For right now, we wanted to avoid Halfbridled and the other fillies in the Oaks here on Saturday. If she's good enough, there will be plenty of chance for that later."

House of Fortune's only other try against the class of the generation resulted in a third-place finish to Hollywood Story in the Starlet Stakes last December. After her romp at Golden Gate, McAnally and Zechter now are looking at the $200,000 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park on April 9, which is sure to draw from the A-list of candidates.

"Any other year, our filly might be a standout," McAnally said. "But this year, the fillies look better than the colts."