06/30/2005 11:00PM

Home-turf advantage could make difference


PHOENIX - It hasn't taken long for the Grade 1 American Oaks to work its way up my favorite-race list. It has always had full fields and fillies from all points - ones based out West, shippers from the East and Midwest, Europeans, even a Japanese monster or two. Toss them all into a race of 10 furlongs on the turf and you have limitless wagering options.

This year is no different. And while it may seem difficult to compare the fillies from Southern California to the fillies from the other side of the country to the fillies from Europe to the filly from Japan, all you have to do is take a look back to last year for help.

The Japanese filly Dance in the Mood came over last year with a well-deserved reputation. She was absolutely top-class and loomed large in the American Oaks. She performed admirably, finishing second. Ticker Tape won the race in smashing fashion, and would go on to win the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland.

This year's Japanese entrant, Cesario, ships in with rave reviews as well. It's easy to see why - all she's done is win 4 of 5 in Japan, including the Grade 1 Japanese Oaks. Dance in the Mood likewise came here last year having won 4 of her first 5. Cesario's only loss came in the Grade 1 Japanese 1000 Guineas and that was by a head. There's no doubt she's absolutely top drawer.

But is she better than Dance in the Mood? Well, things get a bit fuzzy there. But for the sake of argument let's say she's her equal.

Is that enough to handle Melhor Ainda or Three Degrees? After all, it's conceivable Melhor Ainda, who is unbeaten and really untested, is better than Ticker Tape was at this stage of the game. It's also possible that Three Degrees, based on the way she won the Grade 2 Honeymoon here a few weeks ago, is in the same class or at least close. So if that's the case, can Cesario do something Dance in the Mood could not?

You also have the shipping issue. If they were holding this race in Japan, Cesario would be odds-on, even if Melhor Ainda showed up. But it isn't, so she won't be. Instead she has to come and play in their sandbox, and as we see all the time with horses from other countries, some of their best fail not because of a talent issue, but because of the venue.

Things didn't get any better for Cesario when she drew the outside, post 13.

With that in mind, while I have the utmost respect for Cesario and some of the Euros shipping in, I'll have to side with the home squad. This isn't solely a talent issue, though Melhor Ainda, whom trainer Bobby Frankel affectionately refers to as "Little Ghostzapper," may well be something special.

Three Degrees has done nothing wrong and has home-course advantage, which is no small matter, so it would surprise me should she not run well. As far as price potential goes, the Irish invader Luas Line rates a long look. Her connections have been quoted as saying she wants a firm course, and that's what she's going to get at Hollywood. She's already shown she can compete with top horses in Europe on courses with much more give. Should this footing really be to her liking and move her forward, she could have a big say at a big price.

Several pluses for Harvard Avenue

Harvard Avenue appears to have much going for him in Sunday's Grade 1 Triple Bend at Hollywood Park, including the seven-furlong distance.

Harvard Avenue tried the Derby trail last year and wasn't disgraced in a couple of Grade 2 routes. But he showed his true colors with fine seconds in the Grade 1 Malibu and Grade 2 San Carlos, both at seven furlongs. He rallied smartly to win the Grade 2 Potrero Grande at Santa Anita (at 6 1/2 furlongs) in April and that sent him to the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap (seven furlongs) on the Kentucky Derby undercard. But after falling well back as usual, Harvard Avenue couldn't make up the ground.

Even on his best day he wasn't going to beat the winner, Battle Won, but he is capable of doing much better. He returns to Southern California, and in his only other Hollywood appearance finished a fast-closing second in a strong allowance sprint last fall. There's a ton of speed signed up here to give him the pace scenario that he likes.