03/04/2008 12:00AM

Green tint to Big Cap Day


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sons of the auld sod had a pretty good day at Santa Anita last Saturday. And why not? There was a proper crowd turned out, fast horses everywhere you looked, and ale flowing freely in the infield, courtesy of a microbrew festival that would have been called, back home in Ireland, lunch.

Add the gentle atmospherics of a cool Irish mist, squeezed throughout the afternoon from a heavenly sponge, and all the ingredients were in place for Frank Lyons, Eoin Harty, and Will de Burgh to have a grand afternoon.

Lyons, born in Dublin and raised in County Meath, got things going early in the card when the pint-sized Sweeter Still won the China Doll Stakes at a mile on the grass, continuing her steady march toward the American Oaks in July. Lyons is better known for either his work on TVG or training the winner of a Breeders' Cup Sprint - take your pick - but for purposes of conversation Saturday, he could claim to being the guy who plucked the filly out of Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle yard and relocated her in California, where she now runs for David Lanzmann and Jason Wood.

Harty is another Dubliner and a fifth-generation horse trainer as well. He will be calling upon every ounce of that genetic predisposition to pull off a win in the Kentucky Derby this year with Tiznow's son Colonel John, who took another serious step in that direction with a gritty half-length victory over El Gato Malo in the nine-furlong Sham Stakes later in the day.

"He hadn't been out since December, so it was a relief to get him back like that," Harty said.

Now comes the hard part.

On to the main event, and once again it was the Irish centerstage for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, when Heatseeker carried the colors of County Kildare's William de Burgh to a three-quarter-length victory over Go Between at the end of a rollicking 1 1/4 miles.

Heatseeker, an Irish son of Giant's Causeway, kept the fleeing Monterey Jazz within earshot down the backstretch and was well positioned to reel him in once the true running began. After that, Rafael Bejarano was all arms and legs to keep Go Between at bay, and for his trouble the meet's leading rider landed his first victory in California's most famous race.

Not only that, but Heatseeker's direct hit at 7-1 gave trainer Jerry Hollendorfer his first Santa Anita Handicap as well. After 29 years and more than 5,000 winners, most of them on the Northern California circuit, Hollendorfer, 58, was briefly tempted to treat the Handicap as just another notch on a very long belt. During a post-race press conference he insisted that every win was important, that he hadn't set up a permanent stable in Southern California last year with winning the Santa Anita Handicap in mind, and that he really wouldn't be celebrating much because he "had a lot of things to do" to wrap up Saturday and prepare for Sunday.

But then, it seemed to dawn on the former van driver and assistant to such trainers as Jerry Dutton and Jerry Fanning (founders of Club Jerry) that he and his nifty chestnut had done something truly significant. Before this moment, his best wins were a pair of Kentucky Oaks, with Lite Light and Pike Place Dancer.

"I considered those very special," Hollendorfer said. "But this is the best race in California."

On the ride back to the winner's circle to greet De Burgh, Hollendorfer and assistant trainer Dan Ward, Bejarano gazed skyward into the drizzle, whispered a prayer of thanks, and made the sign of the cross. In doing so, he perfectly traced the red cross decorating the front of the gold de Burgh silks.

"It's the family crest," de Burgh explained. "Goes back about 700 years."

That it does, give or take a hundred, back to the first William de Burgh and his brother Hubert, originally from Normandy and then of England, where Hubert was a powerful official who aparently had a hand in drafting the Magna Carta. Nice work Hubert.

Brother William took Ireland by storm in the late 12th century with the backing of England's King John. He spent the next 20 years fighting battles and consolidating power - common tools of business in those days - and died in 1206, in County Tipperary, where Heatseeker hit the ground some time later.

The modern William de Burgh has been a Californian for 30 years, doing business as BSI Management. De Burgh's name was attached to the remarkable mare Kostroma, winner of the 1991 Yellow Ribbon and the 1992 Beverly D., along with partners Robert Sangster and Prestonwood Farm, and he also raced the Argentine horse Good Taste, who came within a nose and a head of upsetting Kentucky Derby winners Alysheba and Ferdinand in the 1988 San Bernardino Handicap.

"Greatest thrill of my life, that race," insisted De Burgh.

Heatseeker came to the States after a promising 2-year-old campaign, during which he was a close third to George Washington in the National Stakes at the Curragh. As it turned out, Heatseeker had no 3-year-old career to speak of, and he was winless in six tries for Bobby Frankel before De Burgh and a partnership of breeders came along last summer. Now he is the Santa Anita Handicap winner.

"He was a very expensive horse, and we're not out yet," De Burgh said. "But this certainly gets us close.

"Just having a horse good enough to compete in this race is an unbelievable feeling," De Burgh added. "I can only say I feel very lucky."

As in Irish.