04/01/2003 12:00AM

A heroic journey leads to U.S.

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Her name is Ipi Tombe, and her arrival at Elliott Walden's barn next Tuesday is the latest stage in an improbable odyssey that has brought her from her birthplace in strife-torn Zimbabwe to acclaim as the most-talked-about horse in the world.

Every once in a while, along comes a Thoroughbred who reminds us of why we love racing in the first place, a horse so talented and so charismatic that each succeeding start is eagerly anticipated.

When that horse is a filly, the excitement she creates is doubled. Ruffian, Lady's Secret, and Miesque were three such horses. They captured the public's imagination and wrote their names large in the history books.

But the successes of that trio could have been predicted. They were bred to achieve what they did. Not so Ipi Tombe, whose modest origins belie her ability. Now, after three resounding victories over colts in Dubai, she is on the brink of becoming one of racing's greatest rags-to-riches stories.

An indication of her public appeal was evident at Nad Al Sheba Saturday night as she swept to victory in the Dubai Duty Free, embarrassing 11 rather accomplished colts in the process.

The Arab portion of the crowd seated on either side of the sheikhs' stand chanted "Ipi!, Ipi!" in unison. Fists were thrust in the air, smiles blossomed, and the roar was deafening as Ipi Tombe crossed the line three lengths in front, setting a new turf course record of 1:47.61 for 1 1/8 miles.

As she was led back into the winners' circle in front of the grandstand, her Dubai fans began a rhythmic applause that is strictly reserved for their favorites. Ipi Tombe had captured the heart of a nation.

In fact, Dubai is the third country to fall in love with Ipi Tombe. A daughter of the unraced Manshood, she was trained in Zimbabwe by Noelene Peech, the leading trainer there. After three victories in four starts at Borrowdale near the capital city of Harare, however, her South African owners grew wary of the political situation in Zimbabwe, and brought her to South Africa to be trained by Michael de Kock, best known in America as the trainer of Horse Chestnut, the easy winner in January 2000 of the Broward Handicap at Gulfstream in his only American start.

In South Africa, Ipi Tombe progressed to the point where she had nothing more to accomplish. Four wins in five starts culminated in a rare victory by a 3-year-old filly over older colts in South Africa's best race, the 1 3/8-mile Group 1 July Cup Handicap.

It was in the July Cup that Ipi Tombe was discovered by Team Valor's eagle-eyed Barry Irwin.

After the purchase by Team Valor and WinStar Farm for $750,000, Irwin and de Kock decided to send Ipi Tombe to Dubai in preparation for an American campaign. "Where the girls are," the English translation of her Zulu name, had already left the confines of filly-and-mare racing in South Africa. She would face only males in Dubai.

"She's the best horse in the history of South African racing," de Kock flatly stated three days before the Duty Free, and yet the South African racing authorities once refused to let Manshood, her sire by Mr. Prospector out of Indian Skimmer, stand in their country. That is why Ipi Tombe was bred and foaled in Zimbabwe. South Africa has since relented, and Manshood is in residence at Gary Player's Colesberg Stud. (Yes, the same Gary Player who turned the color black into a fashion statement on the golf course.)

Ipi Tombe's American adventure actually began in Saratoga last August, when Irwin showed Walden tapes of her South African races. Together they formed a mutual admiration society that seems to be a natural offshoot of her uncanny stage presence.

"We're going to run her in the Arlington Million," a confident Irwin declared even before her Duty Free heroics. "She may have a prep for that or she may not." Her chances in one of America's preeminent turf races should not be disparaged. This mare, who will turn officially 5 on the Southern Hemisphere clock on July 1, is possessed of world-class acceleration and a talent so natural it is chilling.

Walden, meanwhile, is grateful for his good fortune.

"It's very exciting to be getting her," said Walden, who feels little pressure in terms of what is expected of Ipi Tombe and himself.

"I'd rather have the pressure of training a horse we know can run than trying to get a $1 million yearling to win a maiden. We didn't know what we had when Barry bought her, but we sure do now."

The stats read 13 starts, 11 victories, 2 seconds, $1,427,892 in earnings, and a racing heart to die for.

America, get ready for Ipi Tombe Fever.