11/14/2002 12:00AM

Following Moccasin's tracks


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A filly can be Horse of the Year. Of course she can, if her name is All Along, Lady's Secret, or perhaps Azeri.

Look to the past and there are more. In 1944, Twilight Tear went hard from February to November and polished off the year beating Devil Diver in the Pimlico Special. In 1945 it was Busher, smacking around the 3-year-old colts on several occasions and handling older mares as well. Fillies back-to-back, Horse of the Year.

In 1965, the racing game was confused. Kelso had left the building - or at least the five-time Horse of the Year version of Kelso. Even at age 8, the old boy still managed to win the Whitney and the Stymie in a season cut short by an untimely eye injury.

Otherwise, it was chaos. By the end of the 1965 season there were no fewer than three runners hailed as Horse of the Year. Racing writers admired the work of 2-year-old Buckpasser, who won nine of 11 starts. In a separate poll, writers and editors of the Daily Racing Form and the Morning Telegraph chose the durable 4-year-old gelding Roman Brother - with nine losses but wins in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup - over Preakness winner Tom Rolfe.

Then there was Moccasin, who was voted Horse of the Year by the racing secretaries of the 53 tracks aligned as the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. Elevating a 2-year-old filly to such heights was near heresy, even if she was unbeaten in eighth starts. It just wasn't done. Veteran racing official Tommy Trotter, who was the New york Racing Association racing secretary at the time, was among the dissenters.

"Kelso, Gun Bow and Roman Brother were all rated at 132 pounds on the Free Handicap that year," Trotter recalled, and without looking it up.

"Even undefeated, I'm afraid I couldn't have voted for a 2-year-old filly with those horses still around."

Still, she had plenty of fans. Moccasin was a light chestnut, bred and owned by Claiborne Farm and trained by Harry Trotsek. Her long legs were trimmed with three white stockings and usually came equipped with patches behind to protect her hocks. Moccasin's full brothers Ridan and Lt. Stevens elevated expectations.

In his American Racing Manual review of the 1965 season, Charles Hatton cited Moccasin's measurements, as taken by Dr. Manny Gilman of the NYRA, which included a girth of 76 inches (compared to Buckpasser's 75 1/2).

"Her girth, heart, and lung room is sensational," Hatton wrote. "Dr. Gilman could not remember measuring another horse of any age or sex boasting such circumference about the chest."

On Saturday at Hollywood Park, the $100,000 Moccasin Stakes will be run for the 16th time. And while nothing has yet to win the Moccasin Stakes that would remind anyone of Moccasin, Lady's Secret did take the first running in 1984, her first score in an open stakes.

Anyway, Hollywood Park is an unlikely place for a race named for Moccasin. The closest she ever got to L.A. was Arlington Heights, when she ran in Chicago at the age of 4. Everything else about the race, though, is right on the money. The Moccasin is a late-season seven-furlong test for 2-year-old fillies, and Moccasin was at the peak of her form in the fall of 1965, when she won the Alcibiades in Kentucky, the Selima in Maryland, and the Gardenia in New Jersey.

Among the five fillies entered for Saturday's Moccasin is Tale of a Dream. Her sire, Tale of the Cat, descends from mares who were nurtured in the same Claiborne Farm fields as Moccasin and her family. Tale of a Dream has won two of three races, including the Courtship Stakes in September at Bay Meadows. She was third last time out in the Time to Leave Stakes, also at Bay Meadows.

Trainer Bret Layne, better known in the Quarter Horse world, describes his filly as a late-running sprinter who has a stride like a stakes horse and an attitude like an old pro. Of course, he's prejudiced.

"We train this filly at Pleasanton," Layne said, referring to the one-mile county fair track north of San Francisco. "It's a beautiful place to train in the winter. They used to train Seabiscuit there, so we figured if it was good enough for Seabiscuit, it was good enough for us. Only thing is, we didn't travel to Hollywood by train. We came in a horse trailer."

Tale of a Dream has been in town for a week, getting used to her new surroundings.

"We're pretty realistic," Layne said. "She's not a big filly. Kind of a plain-looking little bay. But if she runs to her capabilities, we expect good things from her. The filly she beat in the Courtship [Global Finance] won the Nursery at Hollywood last summer.

"We are a little concerned that Hollywood's track has been a little heavy and tiring," Layne added. "But we think she's ready. Now if she's capable of handling the step up in class, we'll find out."