01/02/2009 12:00AM

Fillies can shine while big ones rest

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The first of 51 graded American races on the grass in 2009 open to fillies and mares with grand ambitions takes place on Sunday at Santa Anita with the 39th running of the San Gorgonio Handicap.

There are lots of things named San Gorgonio in the area, most notably a mountain (at 11,499 feet the tallest peak in Southern California), a pass, a wilderness area, a hospital, and a high school (go Spartans!). The name comes from Saint Gorgonius, a Greek army officer who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when fourth century Christians were being persecuted in the neighborhood. He was tortured, strangled, and canonized, in that order.

The horse race named San Gorgonio has been won by champions Track Robbery, Paseana, and Wandesta, along with Kilijaro, Castilla, Tout Charmant, Megahertz, and Tizna, who won the first running for the division in 1976 while carrying 132 pounds (that is not a typo).

The idea that the race remains a handicap will strike some as funny, since the concept is hardly taken seriously any more. On Sunday, top weight of 116 pounds will be carried by last year's American and Del Mar Oaks runner-up Valbenny, providing Alex Solis stops eating right now. The entered low weight, Solar Miss, is a nice prospect from Kathy Walsh in at 113, who could end up the top weight unless Garrett Gomez decides to leave his left arm in the room. Maiden claimers, by the way, carried 121 in Thursday's 10th. Are those guys in the racing office a riot or what?

No matter what they carry on Sunday, some filly or mare will have a chance to plant an early flag and play a role in the evolution of the division. For now, the field is wide open.

Among last year's stars, Mauralakana, Precious Kitten, Wait a While, and Vacare have been retired, while Forever Together, the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner and leader of the pack, is enjoying her winter quarters on Jonathan Sheppard's farm in snowy southeastern Pennsylvania. She will emerge with the thaw. Goldikova, the best of the Europeans, certainly deserves a holiday in Barbados the way she won the BC Mile, but she is no doubt content to languish in Freddy Head's Chantilly yard before setting off on a new campaign that could lead to a Breeders' Cup encore.

Ben Cecil, keeper of a fleet of European ex-patriots, will try to make an impression on the San Gorgonio with Marzelline, a 5-year-old daughter of Barathea named for a character in the opera Fidelio, and High Heel Sneakers, a 6-year-old daughter of Danehill named for the song (I prefer Jose Feliciano's version, or the Everly Brothers'). Cecil was asked if, in the spirit of the old Charlie Whittingham onslaughts, he was trying to surround the race.

"Not with Frankel in there," Cecil replied, referring to Valbenny. "I've already finished second to him twice at the meet."

This is not the first time the Cecil mares have paraded forth together. In a small stakes at Del Mar last summer, Marzelline led High Heel Sneakers to the wire, giving her three wins from her first six American starts. Marzelline followed that with a smart fourth to Wait a While, Vacare, and Black Mamba in the Yellow Ribbon, beaten just 2 1/2 lengths, but then ran aground in the 1 1/2-mile Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct.

"I don't know if it was the shipping, the course, the distance, or a combination of the three," Cecil said Friday morning. "I'm still not quite sure why she ran so bad. I think it was just a kind of one-off poor run, so I've decided to throw it out."

Trainers get to do that, then players make their decisions accordingly. High Heel Sneakers probably gets a pass on her last race, too, since she was trying to beat the boys in the Hollywood Turf Cup. Her record, though, indicates that nine furlongs is about a half a mile shorter than she prefers, while Marzelline has displayed a greater range.

She could not, however, win a race named for her own trainer. That happened in August of 2007 in England, when she finished second in the Walter Swinburn Conditions Stakes on a Polytrack surface at Kempton while trained by Walter Swinburn, the former champion jockey who sponsored the race. Swinburn used to train Marzelline for his father-in-law, Peter Harris, who once had horses with Henry Cecil, Ben's uncle. Clear enough?

In horse racing, one man's recession can be another's opportunity, and through such interlocking associations, Ben Cecil's California stable has grown in strength and number because there were European horses who did not bring their sales reserves, including the promising British filly Soft Shoe Shuffle, now in the barn preparing for an American campaign.

"With the prize money here, it makes more sense," Cecil noted. "I'm sure, though, that the pool of American-owned horses will get slightly depleted. It will be the first thing people would cut back on."

With his Europeans outnumbering domestic owners about 3-1, Cecil finds himself at least marginally insulated from any rampant owner-flight among Americans. Still, the runners must produce, and even though this San Gorgonio does not stack up as the deepest on record, Cecil was prudent to warn, "No Grade 2 race is ever easy."