01/16/2004 12:00AM

Gem of a filly, by any name

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ARCADIA, Calif. - No one names their racing Thoroughbreds with more care and creativity than Ann and Jerry Moss.

For this they should get ample credit. The name game can be a frustrating slog through alternate choices and arcane Jockey Club rules. After seeing their first, second, third, and fourth picks turned down, no one can blame an owner for giving up and just slapping the sire and dam together for an unimaginative hybrid.

Still, it is worth the effort. A good name lingers long after the horse is gone. Over the past 20 years, the Mosses have decorated the game with the likes of Wild Harmony, Corona Lake, Rhapsodic, Delicate Vine, Sardula, Lexicon, and Fighting Fit, who was their first stakes winner back in 1983.

"I used to go to London a lot for my music business," said Jerry Moss, who founded A&M records with Herb Alpert in 1962. "There was an elevator operator at the Dorchester Hotel, and every time I asked him how he was doing, he'd say, 'Fighting fit!' I figured if I ever got a horse to name, that would be my first choice."

Moss admits to burning the midnight oil this time of year while in diligent search of suitable names. The Jockey Club's naming deadline for 2-year-olds of 2004 is Feb. 1.

"Sometimes I'll go through a magazine - like, say, Vanity Fair - and there will be a couple of phrases," Moss said. "They'll trigger an inspiration, and all of a sudden you're off. Of course, I have to run everything by Ann to make sure we agree. She likes to call me 'the committee of one.'

"It's fun, and I think it's important," Moss added. "You've got to be able to hear Trevor Denman saying the name. That's the real test."

Two years ago, the Mosses named a young filly Summer Bay, who was by Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero out of their stakes-winning mare Set Them Free. It was a nice name, pleasant enough on the tongue, except for one nagging development.

"It turned out she wasn't a bay," Moss said. "She ended up a chestnut. So we named her Sea Jewel, after a boat we rented once in the Mediterranean. The name has good memories, because we had a great time."

Sea Jewel hit with a splash for trainer John Shirreffs, winning her first race in July 2002 at Del Mar. In three subsequent stakes tries she was no match for the leaders of her 2-year-old division, although she was third to Composure in the Oak Leaf Stakes and a distance fourth to Storm Flag Flying in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Arlington Park. That was good enough for a $56,000 payday.

When Sea Jewel emerged a couple of months later at age 3, Shirreffs thought she was on her way, and he was probably right, based upon her close second to Atlantic Ocean in the Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita. The date was Jan. 5, 2003, after which Sea Jewel promptly disappeared from view.

"Chip in the knee," Shirreffs said. "That put the red light out. The chip was removed and the prognosis was excellent for her to return to 100 percent. But it's always difficult, once you have them racing fit, to get them back to the same level again."

The challenge is not only physical. A trainer must be aware of the mental stress involved as well.

"The only trouble with that is if they come back at a more difficult level," Shirreffs said. "They need an easy race to start off again."

True to his word, Shirreffs found a little Santa Anita sprint on a quiet November afternoon to return Sea Jewel to competition. She finished a useful fifth - the equivalent of a full-speed scrimmage - while getting her lungs stretched and her legs just tired enough. After that, no one was really surprised when Sea Jewel won her next race on Dec. 14, a one-mile allowance on the grass at Hollywood Park.

Buoyed by those two positive experiences, Sea Jewel now seems poised to challenge division leader Island Fashion in the $150,000 El Encino Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita Park.

"Sea Jewel is not a big filly," Moss said. "But she's almost perfectly formed. Good size, very racy. She seems to have come back happy, with a real desire to run. I think John is very good at that. He wants horses to have a good time out there. And we've seen that's so important."

Beyond this race, and the subsequent La Canada for the 4-year-old fillies, Shirreffs and Moss envision a future on the grass for Sea Jewel. This makes sense, since her pedigree traces immediately to Del Mar Oaks winner Savannah Dancer and more distantly to those classic half-siblings, French Derby winner Val de Loir and Epsom Oaks winner Valoris II.

"We're expecting some big things from her this year," Moss said. "Now, if we can just hear Trevor call her name four or five times on Sunday."