05/06/2004 11:00PM

Hope Rises: She's got the genes

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Sunday's homage to motherhood, brought to you by Hallmark cards, rightfully should carry forth into the Thoroughbred world, where the entire shaky structure rests upon the simple proposition that class is nurtured in the womb, and that all things good usually can be traced to a simple word:

Dam.

In staging the $250,000 Vanity Handicap on Sunday, Hollywood Park has rightly focused attention on the best possible local assembly of older fillies and mares - better known as the future of the sport.

Whether any of them turns out to be a dam of great price remains to be seen. Too many factors come into play. Winning the Vanity, though, is a surefire way to gain eventual access to a fashionable stallion, thereby increasing the chances for a mare to do her best work as a producer.

The Vanity, first run in 1940 and continuously since 1944, has been won by some of the finest mares of the age, including Honeymoon, Next Move, Silver Spoon, Gamely, Sangue, and, for the past two seasons, Azeri.

A healthy share of Vanity winners have also become memorable mothers. Be Faithful, who won in 1946 for Louis B. Mayer, produced Lalun, a major winner and the dam of Never Bend. Two Lea, a winner for Calumet Farm in 1952, produced 1958 Kentucky Derby winner Tim Tam, and 1974 Vanity winner Tallahto produced Hidden Light, a multiple oaks winner of 1986.

Since family seems to count for something, and Mother's Day is a family day, it will be interesting to witness the Vanity fortunes of Hope Rises, a daughter of Mr. Greeley who will be making her first start in open stakes company. Imagine the fuss back home in Kentucky.

Hope Rises, bred by Julia Sublett, was clearly an afterthought, a "happy accident" in the parlance of some older couples, since her dam, Ahpo Hel, was 17 at the time of conception. She was bred to Mr. Greeley, and Hope Rises is their only daughter.

Mr. Greeley has a handsome album of snapshots, topped by the rainy day picture at Belmont Park in 1995, when he came within a whisker of winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint. A filly beat him, but that's okay. A woman rode him that day, and the Greeleys always were a forward-thinking clan.

Mrs. Greeley - Ahpo Hel, that is - was named for a Mayan princess. Ahpo Hel was accomplished in her own right, winning tough races and doing her papa proud. His name was Mr. Leader, and like Mr. Greeley he owned up to no first name. A repeated pattern, perhaps, passed on from mother to daughter?

The females of the family were all strong and forthright. Ahpo Hel's mother was called Tiy, named for an Egyptian princess. She won races, as did her mother, Leix, and Leix's mother, Bold Irish, who was born way back in 1948. None of them were champions, except to each other, and among the three - Tiy, Leix, and Bold Irish - they gave birth to 26 fillies and colts who eventually won races.

All of them were treated the same at family reunions, but none was more colorful than crabby old Aunt Shenanigans. Like Leix, Aunt Shenanigans was one of the Bold Irish girls and known as just plain "Shenanigans" around the racetrack. She thought herself quite the racing diva, too, with bragging rights on one big day in Maryland. Mostly, though, she would go on and on about her daughter. Her daughter's name was Ruffian.

"No kidding?" said Ron Ellis, who trains Hope Rises. "I knew she had a pretty decent family. But Ruffian?"

Ellis knew better than to get too excited. There is nothing in the genetic stars that can predict replication of excellence in family branches. Even among past Vanity winners, there have been many mares who were unable to pass on their natures, including such giants as Bewitch, Cascapedia, Princess Rooney, and Paseana.

Anyway, Hope Rises is already making a mark on her own terms. In her most recent start, she defeated a talented filly named Summer Wind Dancer in the Santa Lucia Stakes at Santa Anita, and before that won handsomely in allowance company. With four wins in six lifetime races, Hope Rises is already carrying forth the traditions of her female lineage.

On Sunday, she gets a chance to step up to the big leagues, running in open stakes company against the likes of Santa Margarita and Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Adoration, Santa Maria Handicap winner Star Parade, and El Encino Stakes winner Victory Encounter. Ellis knows what it takes to win a Vanity, which he did with Twice the Vice in 1997, and he respects the opposition. He also says he feels his filly has no need to be intimidated.

"They're established mares, for sure," said Ellis. "I just think it's time to find out how good our filly can be."

It's worth a try, even if Hope Rises can muster a diluted drop of the same DNA that once inspired Ruffian. In the wider world, no one really expects the first cousin of Meryl Streep's granddaughter to be a great actress. At the same time, no one would be surprised if she was.