08/05/2004 11:00PM

Kid out to make history in Hirsch

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The Clement L. Hirsch Handicap, named for one of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club founders, used to be the Chula Vista Handicap, and the Chula Vista Handicap used to be nothing more than a restricted race on the grass for older horses who had nothing better to do that afternoon.

That ended in 1981, however, when the Chula Vista was converted to a race for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Overnight, the race took on national significance with the participation of major stakes winners Save Wild Life, Princess Karenda, and Track Robbery, who went on to be champion of the division in 1982.

More than two decades later, the Chula Vista remains a rough bump in the road. There are no free passes. Paseana was tested to the limit by entrymate Exchange in 1994. Heavily favored Manistique was shocked by A Lady from Dixie in 1999. Tranquility Lake found a chink in the armor of future champion Gourmet Girl in 2001.

Since 2000, when the race became the Hirsch, three of the four runnings have been won by mares named Riboletta, Azeri, and Azeri, including Azeri's chilly piece of work last summer under 127 pounds. These days, Azeri is waking up at Saratoga, where she has retaken command of the division, leaving the 2004 version of the Hirsch to those who would be queen.

Star Parade, the incendiary Argentinean, deserves to be the favorite Sunday, and Victory Encounter will be charging late. But the wild card in the Hirsch cast is House of Fortune, who will try to do something no 3-year-old filly has ever done before.

Win the race.

August might be considered a little early to start mixing the kids with the adults. After all, they've still got five months of calendar year to play with their own classmates, and grown-ups can be so cruel.

But an old-fashioned trainer like Ron McAnally smacks his lips at the old-fashioned weight break that 3-year-olds are given this time of year when competing against their elders, especially over a distance of ground. A five-pound head start is simply irresistible, especially when your rider can make the weight and your filly is on top of her game.

House of Fortune has made very few mistakes in her career of 10 starts for Arnold Zetcher, president, CEO, and chairman of the board of Talbots, Inc. With nearly a thousand stores in North America and the United Kingdom, running the vast clothing chain keeps Zetcher on the move. But he never misses a chance to watch House of Fortune in action.

Zetcher also has invested in the family. At the Barretts sale of 2-year-olds last May, House of Fortune's younger brother So Red entered the ring and was languishing in the bidding.

"I didn't go there to buy him, but at $45,000 I couldn't pass him up, being a half-brother to the filly," McAnally said. "That was May, and right now he's still immature, he has bucked shins, and a little filled ankle."

By way of comparison, House of Fortune sold for $125,000 as a March 2-year-old and made her first start last Aug. 10, but then young girls are always way ahead of the boys.

While So Red percolates, Zetcher and McAnally have another recently arrived prospect to keep their attention. Fast and Furious, a colt who raced in France, is on schedule and working toward a start in the $300,000 Del Mar Derby on the grass Sept. 6. Zetcher won the Derby last year with Fairly Ransom.

"He's by Singspiel," McAnally said. "In a race earlier this year he beat the colt that won the French Derby [Blue Canari] at 2,100 meters. We did a little work on his teeth, but other than that he's been very good so far. Beautiful action."

McAnally and Zetcher could have fiddled with House of Fortune and aimed for the Del Mar Oaks, also on the grass, rather than face older fillies and mares in the Hirsch. But the trainer decided to play to her strength, which is surface and distance, rather than trying a new game.

After winning the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn, the only real blemish on House of Fortune's record came in this year's Kentucky Oaks, which ended up a throw-out race because of the muddy track. McAnally got her home as quickly as possible.

"A little bit of time and getting her back on fast tracks again was all she needed," McAnally said. "Sometimes it takes a couple races. Other horses get over it in a hurry."

House of Fortune was one of those "other" horses. In her first race after the Kentucky Oaks, she led all the way to win the Holly-wood Oaks at 1 1/16 miles, emulating the open throttle style of her sire, Free House. The Hirsch will be House of Fortune's first start since the death of Free House on July 19.

"She's certainly been training good down here," McAnally said. "She's real classy looking now, and very mature. She takes everything in stride, goes out with the pony every morning, and just observes everything going on around her.

"And, of course, her sire won the Pacific Classic," McAnally added. "So maybe a little bit of that will rub off Sunday."