07/08/2009 11:00PM

Life Is Sweet looks to join elite group


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Any sober analysis of the May 23 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park would conclude that Life Is Sweet and Garrett Gomez tried every trick in the book to beat Zenyatta, short of calling a fake time-out around the turn. This is how you want a horse you backed to lose a race, without excuse or regret, honor intact, determined to fight another day.

That day comes Saturday, again at Hollywood Park, when Life Is Sweet, an efficient, businesslike bay daughter of Storm Cat, leads a small remount division postward in the 70th running of the Hollywood Gold Cup. The purse is $700,000, compared to $56,000 and change in 1938, when Seabiscuit won the initial running. Little did anyone know at the time that subsequent versions would be taken by Citation, Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man, Native Diver, Ack Ack, Affirmed, and Cigar. But they could always hope.

The names of the winners of the first 69 Gold Cups are engraved on the back of the marble wall greeting Hollywood Park's clubhouse customers. The vibrant Albert Stewart bronze of Swaps and Bill Shoemaker adorns the outward facing side, a tribute not only to their track record Gold Cup of 1956 but also the seven other Hollywood Park stakes they somehow managed to win.

Among the 69 names are those of two 4-year-old fillies and a 6-year-old mare. Of the three, Calumet Farm's Two Lea stands out as the most likely candidate to have dusted the boys at 1 1/4 miles on the main. As a 4-year-old, she finished second by a length to stablemate Ponder in the Santa Anita Maturity (it has been written that Eddie Arcaro was instructed to throttle her down late in favor of the colt). In her next start, Two Lea set the pace for Citation in the Santa Anita Handicap and hung tough for third, while Noor beat them both.

Two Lea defeated a 1952 Hollywood Gold Cup field that was less than stellar, although Great Circle, Moonrush, and Arroz all had their very good days. She also stood in the Gold Cup winner's circle bleeding from a long cut on a back leg. Two Lea took a break and returned in three months to beat Moonrush again in the Children's Hospital Handicap at Bay Meadows, all accomplished on an ankle sporting a lump the size of a golf ball.

"She was wide, very wide," said Dr. Jack Robbins, president of the Oak Tree Racing Association. "You had to be careful going in the stall with her or she'd knock you down with a hip."

Robbins at the time was a young racetrack vet hired by Ben and Jimmy Jones to help care for the West Coast string of Calumet Farm. Two Lea was just one of many stars in the barn.

"She was nicely conformed, almost like a Quarter Horse," Robbins said. "But don't blame me for that ankle. I was firing it, and Jimmy kept poking his head in the stall telling me he didn't think I got it deep enough. It came out kind of ugly, kind of a big cystic thing, but it never bothered her."

Robbins is very interested in the Gold Cup outcome, since all roads lead to the Breeders' Cup races to be run at the end of the Oak Tree meet, and Life Is Sweet represents a story line that could generate considerable interest. In terms of Gold Cup precedent, she most closely resembles 1968 winner Princessnesian, the star of Princequillo's last crop, who was 4 when she defeated Racing Room by a neck in 1968.

Life Is Sweet races for her breeders, Pam and Marty Wygod, who have carved out their own place in the history of the sport with such notable fillies and mares as Tranquility Lake, Exotic Wood, Twice the Vice, Pirate's Revenge, and champion Sweet Catomine, Life Is Sweet's big sister. Just as Life Is Sweet takes a backseat in the John Shirreffs stable to the unbeaten champion Zenyatta, so did Princessnesian labor in the long shadow of her stablemate Gamely, champion 3-year-old filly of 1967. In the Gold Cup, however, it was Princessnesian first and Gamely seventh.

Happy Issue, the first filly to win the Gold Cup, was trained by a former French steeplechase jockey and World War I vet named Charles Pinon. She was claimed as a 2-year-old for $1,500, and by the time she began her 1944 campaign, Happy Issue was racing for Pinon's wife under the banner of the Happy Stable.

As a 3-year-old, late in 1943, Happy Issue ran 11 times and won 4 races in a period of 66 days. One of those wins was for a $2,500 tag. By October 1944, she already had made 17 starts for the season in San Francisco and Chicago when Hollywood Park reopened for business after two years of use in the war effort.

Severe restrictions in transportation and resources had taken a toll on Thoroughbred ownership during the war years, so it can be said that Happy Issue's opposition in that fifth running of the Gold Cup, on the afternoon of Dec. 16, 1944, was highly vulnerable to a filly in good form. Still, she beat them for fun, dashing through along the inside under Hedley Woodhouse and 119 pounds to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Joe Palmer, writing in "American Race Horses of 1944," referred to the victory as "an ageless and entrancing story, the ugly duckling in the plumage of the swan."

All Life Is Sweet needs to do to join Happy Issue, Two Lea, and Princessnesian on Saturday is handle defending Gold Cup Champ Mast Track and 11 other rowdy males. But even if she fails, she's already a swan.