09/12/2007 11:00PM

Fast fillies in rich race - an Erie tale

EmailDEL MAR, Calif. - Even dicey ideas sometimes give birth to fair-haired children.

For instance, there was no particular clamor for a Breeders' Cup sprint race exclusively designed for fillies and mares. Females were doing just fine against males in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In fact, their presence added spice to what could have been just a parade of guys beating up on each other, year after year.

The BC Sprint has been run 23 times. In 10 of those runnings, a filly finished either first or second. That hardly sounds like a demographic in need of equal opportunity legislation. Very Subtle, Safely Kept, and Desert Stormer won the Sprint outright. Meafara finished second in two consecutive runnings, while Pine Tree Lane, Soviet Problem, Honest Lady, and Xtra Heat each threw a scare into the boys with close seconds of their own.

Still, without the newly created Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint - or the BCFMS, as it's affectionately called down at the corner bar - there probably would not be $400,000 on the table Saturday at Presque Isle Downs for a bunch of fast and lucky females with short attention spans.

At six furlongs on the synthetic Tapeta surface, the Presque Isle Downs Masters instantly becomes the richest horse race ever run in the town of Erie, Pa., located in the triangular tip of northwestern Pennsylvania that gives the Keystone State its very own strip of Lake Erie shoreline.

The Presque Isle purses are fed by its casino, and its casino seems to be humming along just fine. The $400,000 Masters is part of a Presque Isle purse structure that was advertised at $13 million for the current 25-day inaugural meet. A 100-day meet is planned for 2008, with a commitment of $300,000 a day in purses.

Since it has been pretty well proven that horsemen really don't care where the cash comes from, as long as it keeps coming, the Presque Isle Downs Masters amounts to found money for the once neglected subcategory of female sprinters. Now that they have their own Breeders' Cup event, complete with an Eclipse Award awaiting at the end of the year, there needs to be division leaders. The current list includes Dream Rush, River's Prayer, Maryfield, Baroness Thatcher, and Oprah Winney.

None of them will be found at Presque Isle on Saturday, but among those mustered for this first running of the Masters are U.S. and Canadian graded stakes winners Miss Macy Sue, Mary Delaney, Wild Gams, Vestrey Lady, and Miraculous Miss.

Two of the top contenders have yet to snag a graded event, as if that really matters. Smart and Fancy, whose 10 victories include the 2006 Maryland Million Oaks, and Shaggy Mane, winner of the 2007 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, figure to have a lot to say about the outcome.

Smart and Fancy has spent her whole life running in good races for the same appreciative people. Shaggy Mane, on the other hand, has raised herself up from more humble beginnings.

A California-bred daughter of champion Bertrando, Shaggy Mane has toiled for three sets of owners while spending the first half of her career as a claimer. Don Chatlos, who gained a degree of fame as the trainer of Breeders' Cup Mile winner Singletary, is Shaggy Mane's fourth trainer, entering the tale last fall when she was purchased by IEAH Stable and partners.

"I can see why she was in for $8,000 and $12,500 tags," Chatlos said. "She's a skinny thing, and crooked. We knew in buying her we'd really have to space her races out, because she just lays it down every time."

In her most recent start, Shaggy Mane was second to River's Prayer in the Princess Rooney at Calder.

"It rained for a solid six hours before the race," Chatlos recalled. "If she'd come out of there finishing fifth or sixth, I wouldn't have been that disappointed. Then the way she gutted it out to only get beat half a length, I was really impressed, especially since I always thought River's Prayer was the one to beat."

Chatlos trained Shaggy Mane on Del Mar's Polytrack surface this summer before returning to his home base at Hollywood Park, where Cushion Track is the synthetic of choice. At Del Mar, Shaggy Mane could have run against River's Prayer in the Rancho Bernardo Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs, but Chatlos passed.

"I don't know if Del Mar would have been the best place to run her, because she's so fast, and in the afternoon that track was a little different than it was in the morning," Chatlos said. "But she really trained well on that track, and I thought we would be one of the few horses coming into this race Saturday off training over a synthetic track to run on one. One thing we found out at Del Mar is that horses running there after training on dirt at Santa Anita could get pretty tired."

Good point. Vestrey Lady fits the bill, coming in from a season of racing on Woodbine's version of Polytrack. And Miraculous Miss should feel right at home at Presque Isle, since she trains on Tapeta at Fair Hill, Md.

Come Oct. 26, though, over the old-fashioned sandy loam at Monmouth Park, it will be time to get down and dirty in the Breeders' Cup. On Saturday we'll find out if any of the Masters fillies might fit.