05/31/2001 11:00PM

Happiness is big fish in small pond


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again. Or at least you can drop by for a visit and leave with a souvenir.

If the face attached to the trainer of Frankly My Dear looks familiar, it should. Mike Stidham spent his formative years in Southern California, trying to make a name for himself in a climate that was mostly inhospitable to anyone not named Whittingham, Barrera, Frankel, or McAnally. Stidham was in his early 20's at the time.

"I'll never forget, when I first got out here, I had 10 stalls," Stidham, 43, recalled, "and they stuck me in one of these big barns at Hollywood. My neighbors were John Gosden, who had just come over from England, and Wayne Lukas. It was pretty intimidating."

Racing, like most professional sports, suffers from the big city syndrome that tends to discount anything accomplished outside New York or Los Angeles. To his credit, Stidham held his ground in California for several years before finally casting his lot with owner Harold Goodman's growing Thoroughbred interests in Texas and the Midwest.

It was there Stidham flourished. His star rose. And now he has returned to Hollywood Park for the Milady Handicap on Sunday with Frankly My Dear, a 4-year-old filly who carries the colors of Greg Goodman's Mt. Brilliant Farm.

"It felt kind of like a closed shop when I was out here," Stidham said. "There was no shot of getting in. Moving to the Midwest turned out to be the best move I ever made. There's so many more opportunities, more tracks, more breeders, and people that give you a shot."

In opting for personal satisfaction over the occasional headline, the trainer pretty much gave up the idea of Mike Stidham fan clubs and Web sites.

But with simulcasting, and with the aggressive publicity of such regional tracks as Lone Star and Fair Grounds, the game has become truly national. Stidham was surprised to discover his growing reputation has spread.

"You go along, work hard, win races, and you don't realize what you've accomplished until you come back to a place like California, and people tell you what a good job you're doing."

Stidham describes Frankly My Dear as a "real hard-knocking over-achiever that's kind of out-running her pedigree." Her primary opposition in the 1 1/16-mile Milady will be two other blue-collar mares: the former $62,500 claimer Lazy Slusan and the California-bred Feverish, who has done just about everything but win a Grade 1 race like this one.

Frankly My Dear is a daughter of the New York stallion Scarlet Ibis (hence the name, for "Gone With the Wind" groupies) and the Quadratic mare Millers Stationery. Full credit for those who recall Stidham's work with Millers Stationery in the mid-1980's, when she won 10 California races, including a stakes on the fair circuit.

"At first, Frankly My Dear reminded me a lot of her dam," Stidham said. "As a 2-year-old, Millers Stationery was a skinny, narrow filly. I didn't think much of her. But she could just flat out run. That's what this filly has become - not real flashy or attractive. But she can run."

Frankly My Dear has run hard enough to win 6 of her 14 starts, including a pair of stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. She also has the intestinal fortitude to recover from a hoof injury that nearly turned to founder in the spring of 2000, following an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

"We were worried about her making it back at all," Stidham said. "But she's been better than ever."

Whether or not that is good enough to win the Milady is still in doubt. But with Hawthorne Handicap winner Printemps and Apple Blossom Handicap winner Gourmet Girl watching from the sidelines, Stidham figured it was worth the ship.

"It doesn't look a whole lot tougher than some of the races she's been running in back East, against fillies like Lu Ravi and Darling My Darling," the trainer noted.

If nothing else, Frankly My Dear gives the West Coast a chance to see how Greg Goodman has carried on for his late father. Harold Goodman, who made his fortune in air conditioning, beseeched his children to disperse his Thoroughbred holdings after his death and save themselves from the financial extravagance of racing.

"Obviously, Greg went against his wishes - but in a good way," Stidham said. "He's into the breeding end to sell horses, and not just the racing end. I think his dad would approve."

Stidham has secured Alex Solis to ride Frankly My Dear for the first time in the Milady. His instructions will be simple:

"She's got some tactical speed," Stidham said. "She can lay in a forward position the first part of the race. Then, from there, if she's fast enough and good enough she'll win."

And her trainer will feel right at home.