09/27/2007 12:00AM

A great upset that wasn't

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - The Yellow Ribbon is the fashion statement that never changes and never goes out of style. Other races are like platform shoes and tongue studs, in and mercifully out of favor, while the appeal of the Yellow Ribbon never fades.

Before the Breeders' Cup added its race for fillies and mares on the turf (called, in a burst of creativity, the Filly and Mare Turf), the Yellow Ribbon was the definitive late-season grass race for horses with championship aspirations. In deference to its Breeders' Cup cousin, the Yellow Ribbon has been shifted slightly in the calendar, but it has remained a 1 1/4-mile event from the outset, defying the trend to whittle furlongs in this age of speed over stamina.

It has been that way since 1977, when the race was introduced by Oak Tree co-founder Lou Rowan as the $100,000 Yellow Ribbon Invitational and won by the Argentine mare Star Ball, owned by Fresno farmer John Valpredo.

There now have been 30 Yellow Ribbons in the books. Eight of them have been won by champions (Estrapade, Brown Bess, Possibly Perfect, Ryafan, Fiji, Golden Apples, Wait a While, and the Canadian filly Carotene), with another half-dozen or so winners of championship quality, including Kilijaro, Sangue, Sabin, Kostroma, Tranquility Lake, and Megahertz.

Charlie Whittingham's last major stakes victory in a lifetime of gems came in the 1994 Yellow Ribbon with Aube Indienne. Herb McCauley, in a rare California appearance, won the 1990 Yellow Ribbon for John Veitch and Darby Dan. Maurice Zilber, the flamboyant international horseman who trained Dahlia, descended upon Santa Anita in 1978 to win the Yellow Ribbon with Amazer for Nelson Bunker Hunt.

A quarter of a century ago, the field for the 1982 Yellow Ribbon was typically deep. There was Star Pastures, runner-up the year before, and Sangue, the grand South American mare who was emerging as the best all-around female in the nation, not to mention the long-winded Honey Fox, already a marquee name.

Among the four 3-year-olds in the race were Del Mar Oaks winner Castilla, a daughter of Bold Reason owned by Mary Bradley and trained by Whittingham, and Santa Ysabel Stakes winner Avigaition, a daughter of Windy Sands owned by Norm Pulliam and trained by his wife, Vivian.

The idea that someone named Vivian would beat Charlie Whittingham at level weights for a six-figure pot was kind of preposterous. But it happened, as Avigaition led all the way under Nestor Capitaine to beat Castilla by a length. Unfortunately for the Pulliams, Avigaition's navigation went badly awry in the stretch, when Capitaine allowed his filly to lean inward. Ray Sibille checked Castilla, pulled out, and rallied again on the outside.

It was too bad, because Avigaition was a great story and might have won anyway, especially since she later proved the Yellow Ribbon was no fluke. At 4 and 5, Avigaition won the La Canada Stakes, the Santa Barbara Handicap, and the Santa Ana Handicap, while placing in a half-dozen other major stakes, both on turf and dirt. With the 1983 Santa Barbara, Vivian Pulliam became the first woman to train a Grade 1 race winner in the history of Santa Anita.

The Pulliams never had a large stable, and Avigaition has been by far their most accomplished horse. But they are still in the game, most recently enjoying the performances of Northern California stakes winner My Creed.

"It's a lot of fun when they're winning a race - even a $5,000 race," said Norm Pulliam, who continues to consult on Southern California building projects after a successful career in construction and development. The last time they ran in a major Southern California event was last June, when My Creed took on Lava Man in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

"That was kind of throwing him to the wolves," Pulliam said. "But if you don't try it, you can't win it."

The Pulliams can never be blamed for taking a swing. Avigaition was 34-1 when she finished first in the Yellow Ribbon, and by the time the stewards took her down, the postrace ceremonies were finished.

"Our daughter Amy was with us that day, just 4 years old, and she got the trophy in her hands," Pulliam recalled. "Lou Rowan was presenting it, and when he had to take it back, Amy didn't want to let it go. She was in my arms, going, 'No, no, no!' Lou felt pretty bad.

"The following year, when we won the Santa Barbara, Amy was with us in the winner's circle again," Pulliam added. "When they handed her the trophy, she had both hands on it. And the look on her face was so funny. She was not going to give that one up."

The 31st running of the Yellow Ribbon on Saturday boils down on paper to a fascinating duel between Citronnade, unbeaten on California turf, and Nashoba's Key, unbeaten

. . . period. One of them should win, and whichever one does should earn some kind of championship by the time the season is through.

But if that doesn't happen, at least they'll have a Yellow Ribbon trophy to ease the pain. Just remember to hold on tight.