02/08/2002 1:00AM

Light bulb goes on: The American Oaks!

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Martin Panza, the racing secretary at Hollywood Park, awoke one night not too long ago to the whisper of disembodied voice, floating somewhere in the darkened corners of his bedroom: "Martin. Maaaaartin. If you build it, they will come."

Was it a dream? Was it the clams? Panza didn't have a clue. But when he awoke again at dawn, his head was filled with an idea that would not go away. A grand race for fillies, on the grass, in the full glory of summertime in Southern California, with a purse and a distance that would be taken seriously throughout the racing world.

Okay, so it didn't happen exactly that way. Hollywood Park is a property of Churchill Downs Inc., and anything that happens at CDI is usually one part inspiration and 10 meetings later. But who cares how the sausage was made? In this particular case they came up with a winner that looks good from all angles, beginning with a name that rings true: The American Oaks.

You would think that America, being a proud country, would have had its own Oaks by now, something that the entire sport could embrace. The French, the English, the Irish and the Japanese all put their Oaks on a pedestal.

Sure, there are tiny little Oaks in Iowa, Washington, Delaware,

Minnesota, New York, Louisiana, Michigan, Arizona, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. And there are institutional Oaks at Del Mar, Monmouth, Prairie Meadows, Calder, and Fair Grounds.

Marie DeBartolo has an Oaks. So does Audubon, and Queen City. Oak Tree, ironically, does not. There are big, strong Oaks at Santa Anita and Kentucky, and something at Belmont Park called the Coaching Club American Oaks, although no one seems to know where the Coaching Club is, or how to join.

There is even a Hollywood Oaks, although it has pretty much withered from lack of interest. At a mile and one-eighth on the main track in July, it had become just another anti-climactic consolation prize for the remnants of the big spring push to Kentucky. Now it will be a mile and one-sixteenth in June, sacrificed in a good cause.

The name was just laying there - the American Oaks - waiting for a track to pick it up and run. In its first incarnation, scheduled for Saturday, July 6, the American Oaks will offer a prize of $500,000. That's fine. A half-million should be hard to ignore, especially for a division that runs for far less money than its male counterparts.

It is also a change of pace to see a California racetrack presenting a proactive idea, rather than reacting to outside influences. In recent years, Californians have seen the Matriarch shortened because of the Breeders' Cup, the Oak Tree stakes schedule turned inside out because of the Breeders' Cup, the Santa Anita Handicap moved because of the Dubai World Cup, and both the Eddie Read and Ramona handicaps shifted to accommodate the Arling-ton Million and the Beverly D.

The best thing about the American Oaks, however, is the setting. At a mile and a quarter on Hollywood grass, the field will start at the far end of the diagonal infield chute and come running right at the stands. There will be plenty of time to establish position and prepare for the gentle left-hand elbow that leads to the main oval. From there, once around, and let the best filly win.

"We need to lengthen our races," Panza said. "It would have been the easy way out to make it a mile and one-eighth. We would have gotten a 14-horse field for sure. But you know what, at a mile and a quarter, it adds some intrigue to the race, because none of our fillies will have done that yet. Just like the Kentucky Derby."

Hats off to that, and what a radical idea. Maybe there is hope after all. For too long, American racetracks have been pandering to the idea that distance racing is dead. The American marathoner, once a proud beast that could handle 12 furlongs with no sweat, has been going the way of the triceratops. Now, along comes a race that not only promotes the concept of stamina, but also creates a pool of potential broodmares who can prove themselves worthy of the finest stallions.

Panza and his troops have hopes and dreams to go international with the American Oaks, promoting it to the four corners of the racing world. That will take more money, sponsorship, and some kind of television component. For right now, though, Panza's challenge will be to field a strong American Oaks right off the bat.

On paper, it should not be tough. There is no real competition from existing events. Most of the European classics for the 3-year-old filly division take place in late May and early June. In America, there is nothing of significance until the Del Mar Oaks in August, and then not again until the Queen Elizabeth Challenge at Keeneland in the fall. Other than that, they must run against their elders, culminating in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at either 10 or 11 furlongs.

"It's the forgotten division," Panza noted. "And at a mile and a quarter, it will tell people if they've got a filly who can get the distance, especially if they are thinking about running in the Breeders' Cup."

Someday, just winning the American Oaks may be enough.