01/04/2002 12:00AM

Falling in love with Lord Flasheart


PHOENIX - Every couple of years some turf horse comes along and grabs my heart. I'm always hoping he takes my wallet along for the ride, but even if that doesn't happen I'm more than happy to jump on the bandwagon.

My favorites have included Al Mamoon, Bien Bien, Labeeb, Sandpit, Tuzla, and Bienamado. Last Sunday someone else crashed the party, and I have every expectation this good-sized splash will be followed by much bigger ones that resonate coast to coast.

A year and a half ago, Lord Flasheart was sent to Bobby Frankel in Southern California for new owner Edmund Gann. But Lord Flasheart injured a tibia while preparing for the Hollywood Derby. After the tibia healed, a splint bone injury further delayed his debut in this country. It has taken quite a while to get him back, but it was worth the wait.

"It took patience," Frankel said in Daily Racing Form. "He wasn't going too good when I first got him, but he's better now."

Better is putting it mildly. In an allowance race at a mile on turf, Lord Flasheart was favored despite the layoff of nearly 18 months. Ridden by Chris McCarron, he came on strong in the lane, rallying from last to win by a length over Straight Flush and Big Board, two recent imports from South America trained by Richard Mandella.

A two-time stakes winner, Lord Flasheart may reappear in the $150,000 San Marcos Handicap over 1 1/4 miles on turf Jan. 21. That's notable because Irish Prize, who won the Grade 2 San Gabriel a couple hours after Lord Flasheart's victory, is also being pointed for the San Marcos, according to trainer Neil Drysdale.

Lord Flasheart's previous shining moment came when he was second to the talented Holding Court in the 2000 French Derby. The way he won last Sunday gives every indication more high points are on the way. Besides the San Marcos, the San Luis Obispo, San Luis Rey, and San Juan Capistrano are all coming up. And remember, he is much more effective going 10 furlongs or longer.

Straight Flush deserves mention as well. From the same connections that brought us the wonderful Sandpit, Straight Flush was also making his first start in a long time. He had won 6 of 8 starts in Brazil, including all four in 2000 when he was Brazilian Horse of the Year. In his first race since August 2000 in Sunday's allowance, he settled midpack, then caught a break when a lane conveniently opened up for him between horses at the quarter pole.

He blasted through, but Lord Flasheart was absolutely flying on the outside, and Straight Flush just couldn't keep pace late.

"We call him Juan, for San Juan," Mandella said, in reference to the closing-day, Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at 1 3/4 miles.

Mandella said Straight Flush could make his next start in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on turf on Feb. 16, but he is toying with trying Straight Flush on dirt, since that division for older horses seems particularly light this winter. Straight Flush was a 10-length winner against maidens in his only start on dirt in Brazil.

"If he likes the dirt, this would be the time to find out, with all the big races coming up," Mandella said. "If not, we can always go back to the San Juan."

A horse that has won from 7 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles on dirt and turf can be a contender no matter what spot trainer Mandella chooses. Should it be the same one as Lord Flasheart we could be in for a heck of a show.

Keep an eye on Love at Noon

Speaking of potential duels, last Saturday's Grade 1 La Brea may also have provided a glimpse of the future.

The winner was Affluent, a beautiful daughter of Affirmed trained by Ron McAnally who is now a Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf, routing and sprinting. She got a dream pace set-up and took full advantage. It was a scintillating comeback, and she is surely going to be a force in the older filly ranks.

But another who figures to be a major player lost nothing in defeat. Love at Noon hadn't been seen since finishing second in the Grade 2 Princess at Hollywood last June, a race in which she beat Affluent. Before that came a tough beat in the Grade 3 Dogwood at Churchill Downs, and before that two monstrous sprints wins, including a dazzling eight-plus-length romp in an allowance race on the Derby undercard, one in which she earned a 107 Beyer.

She had been working a hole in the wind in recent months, and for Bob Baffert that's a great sign - his best horses work fast when they're ready to show their stuff.

Love at Noon prompted a sizzling pace, set by favored and once-beaten Above Perfection. She loomed three wide and in midstretch looked as though she was going to edge clear. But Affluent went by, then longshot Royally Chosen ran her guts out to outnod Love at Noon for the place. Still, considering the length of layoff and the fact Love at Noon ran hard for seven furlongs it was a terrific performance.

Both fillies figure to come back in the Grade 2 El Encino at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 20. Love at Noon won't be pressing a 44-second and change split that day. Her tactical speed gives her a significant edge over Affluent - it's quite possible she will be on an easy lead going much slower, saving something for when Affluent makes her run.

Regardless, it could be the start of a long and stirring rivalry.