05/07/2003 11:00PM

Getting back to regal roots

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As the field paraded to the post for last Saturday's 129th Kentucky Derby, John Hendrickson, seated in a third-floor box on the finish line with his wife, Marylou Whitney, heard the familiar ring of his cellular telephone. It was the farm in Lexington, Ky., reporting the birth of a colt by Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm out of Dear Birdie.

Twenty-four hours earlier, another of Dear Birdie's foals, Bird Town, a 3-year-old filly by Cape Town, upset the Kentucky Oaks at 18-1 for Whitney, her owner and breeder. The stunning victory was a signal that Whitney's campaign to restore the stable's broodmare band to its former prominence is well under way.

The phone call was an indication that the mission is further along than many realize.

By almost every definition, the Kentucky Oaks is a classic race. It enjoys a long and distinguished history and consistently attracts the best 3-year-old fillies in training. The 129th Kentucky Oaks, with a field of 12, had most of the good ones, including Elloluv, the Ashland winner; Lady Tak, the Fair Grounds Oaks winner and the Kentucky Oaks favorite; My Boston Gal, who was a stakes-winner at Churchill Downs last season; and Santa Catarina, who has consistently run well against good fillies in California.

Bird Town ran like she owned them. Under Edgar Prado, who continues to impress in important engagements, Bird Town stumbled leaving the gate and lost position. Prado permitted her to find her stride, then brought her forward steadily. She raced between horses into the stretch, dueled briefly with Santa Catarina, and then drew out to register by more than three lengths. This may have been the strongest showing of the season to date in the division.

Her price was misleading. Bird Town has never run a poor race, has been in the money in all eight of her starts, and has earned almost $450,000. Now that she has shown her true colors, she can be expected at all the major races, beginning with Belmont's Acorn on June 6.

"She is a lovely filly," trainer Nick Zito said. "She tries hard every time and is obviously very determined. She lost a lot of her chance when she stumbled at the start of the Oaks, but she refused to throw it away. She went after them. She can stay a distance, and I suspect it will take a good horse to beat her."

Zito did an outstanding job in developing Bird Town, who appears to have great potential. The trainer has two Kentucky Derbies to his credit with Strike the Gold and Go for Gin. He now a belongs to the exclusive club whose members have won the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

As for Marylou Whitney, she was hailed throughout the industry for the way she is rebuilding her broodmare band. Her late husband, C.V. Whitney, was one of America's great breeders of the 20th century. Among his most cherished souvenirs were four victories in the Kentucky Oaks, with Two Bob in 1936, Bug Brush in 1958, Bag of Tunes in 1973, and Sun and Snow in 1975.

"Sonny," said Whitney of her late husband, "had a theory that a horse's significant qualities are primarily handed down through the dam. Many of his good horses traced to certain mares, and when I began to assemble a racing stable several years ago, I was on the lookout for fillies who traced to Sonny's best mares."

One of these fillies was Inca Legacy, who was out of C.V. Whitney's fine filly Inca Queen, a daughter of the great Santa Anita Derby winner Silver Spoon. In a foal-sharing agreement with William T. Young Jr. of Overbrook Farm, Marylou Whitney bred a colt by Storm Cat out of Inca Legacy named Ustoura and sold him at Keeneland for $3 million. A daughter of Inca Legacy named Catinca developed into a stakes-winner of more than $900,000.

And then there was Honey Dear, whom Mrs. Whitney always admired for her courage. She ran into a fence at the farm, splintering the wood. Some of the splinters remained after she started racing, but Honey Dear never let it stay her from the swift completion of her appointed rounds. "We had a difficult time locating a filly out of the Honey Dear family that we could buy," Whitney said. "Finally we got word of a filly owned by people in Arkansas. We were able to purchase her, in foal to Proud Birdie, for about $50,000. That foal was Dear Birdie, the dam of our Oaks winner."

Whitney has a broodmare band of 14, headquartered in Lexington on a section of Gainesway Farm that C.V. Whitney sold to John Gaines when Gaines owned Gainesway.

John Hendrickson has taken on the direction of breeding activities for the stable, while Marylou Whitney continues her relentless search for more fillies tracing to the great Whitney bloodlines of yesteryear.