09/29/2005 11:00PM

How will this Hollywood Story end?


ARCADIA, Calif. - If it's Oak Tree, there must be something on fire somewhere close to Santa Anita, and this season is no different. As of Friday morning, just a short freeway hop down U.S. 101, more than 16,000 acres of rugged, mostly unpopulated terrain in the San Fernando Valley was burning out of control and threatening homes despite the efforts of 3,000 firefighters.

George Krikorian, who runs his classy filly Hollywood Story in the Lady's Secret Handicap on Sunday, can be forgiven if he gets the grim shivers when glances toward the smoky western sky. It has been barely a month since Krikorian watched the wood frame of his La Jolla home-in-progress go up in towering flames. The likely cause of the Aug. 27 blaze was traced to construction equipment.

"It was a real kick in the stomach to have that happen," Krikorian said Friday morning. "The good thing is that no one got hurt, and none of the neighbors' homes were damaged. When you compare that to people who had to deal with the hurricanes, and now the fires out here, what happened to me is a minor thing."

When it rises from the ashes, Krikorian's 7,000-square-foot dream home will eventually include a movie theater, which is hardly a surprise, since his name is associated with one of the country's most successful small chains of independently owned movie houses.

In its first incarnation, the Krikorian theater chain numbered more than 100 screens before he sold most of them to theater giant Regal Cinemas in 1996. Starting practically from scratch, Krikorian embarked on a new wave of multiplex development in underserved Southern California neighborhoods that offered moviegoers an elegant aesthetic experience to go along with their bad Adam Sandler films.

Chandeliers hang in the lobbies of the Krikorian Premiere Theatres. The floors are marble and original murals adorn the walls. Each one of the current 87 Krikorian screens in seven different multipexes can be viewed from tiered stadium seats. An eighth complex is opening soon in the southern L.A. County community of Pico Rivera.

"Like racetracks, theaters take up a lot of ground and require a lot of parking," Krikorian noted. "They're both entertainment facilities, with the key things customer service and presentation. It matters how people are treated.

"I guess I can't help noticing such things when I go to different tracks," Krikorian added. "It's clear that some of the older racetracks, built in a different economic era, need to change. Unfortunately, its difficult to invest money in change when your admissions are dropping and your costs are going up."

Hollywood Story, a super-sized daughter of Wild Rush who is trained by John Shirreffs, has taken Krikorian to some of the game's top events, including the Kentucky Oaks, the American Oaks, and the Breeders' Cup. She has a record of 3 wins in 17 starts, with all three of those wins coming in major stakes events.

At 2, Hollywood Story won the Starlet Stakes as a maiden. At 3 she defeated older mares in the Bayakoa Handicap. This year, her lone victory in five starts came in the Hawthorne Handicap at Hollywood Park, although Krikorian figures her last race, in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar, should be called nothing less than a winning effort, when she was beaten a nose by the late Tucked Away.

"With all due respect to the stewards, I still feel very strongly that the filly who finished first did come out and impeded her progress, costing her the race," Krikorian said. "But those things happen."

When it comes to racing, Krikorian has had more than his share of cinematic experiences. Hollywood Story stumbled and nearly fell on the first turn of the Hawthorne before going on to a clear-cut victory, while her finish in the Santa Maria Handicap earlier this year was stalled in close quarters.

Those examples pale, however, next to the sight of his stakes-winning filly Starrer tossing Chris McCarron at the start of the 2001 Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park.

"She was 3-5 that day and 'won' without the rider by about 20 lengths," Krikorian recalled. "Then, in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont Park later that year, she was about two lengths off the lead at the top of the stretch when McCarron dropped his whip."

Starrer, who was trained by Dave Hofmans, finished fifth in that version of the Distaff, beaten just a bit more than three lengths. If Hollywood Story runs her typical good race in the Lady's Secret on Sunday, it will be on to this year's version of the Distaff, again at Belmont Park.

"I guess you can say Belmont owes me one," Krikorian said with a laugh. "But it will be great if she runs good enough on Sunday just to get a chance. One thing is for sure, there might be all kinds of racetracks, but I've never been in a bad winner's circle."