07/09/2003 11:00PM

Lots to admire in A Gleam

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When Twilight Tear's filly hit the ground on March 22, 1949, Calumet Farm manager Paul Ebelhardt noted in his office records, "This is class with a capital C . . . probably the one we have been waiting for."

To put such a comment in the proper context, this would be like showing up in the Yankees clubhouse and hearing Joe Torre say, "Hey Derek, the kid looks good. Might be your replacement."

Calumet Farm, in that spring of 1949, was making better, more reliable products than General Motors. In 1947, the stable earned $1.4 million, more than doubling the previous record for an American owner. In 1948 they managed to stay afloat with another $1.2 million in earnings, which included Citation's sweep of the Triple Crown.

Citation was fallow in '49, nursing a nasty tendon, but his sidekick Coaltown was ready to pick up the slack. He ended up going 12 for 15 as champion older horse. As 1949 dawned, champion filly Bewitch was embarking on the third year of a Hall of Fame career that would run for 55 starts, while Ponder, Wistful, and Two Lea were taking their places at the top of the 3-year-old class.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the filly who would later become champion Real Delight was foaled in early March, then little Hill Gail came along in April, with nothing less than a Kentucky Derby in his future. It was a heady brew - a real dean's list of Thoroughbred talent - and yet Twilight Tear's filly was anointed as perhaps the queen of them all.

Her name was A Gleam, and her memory will be honored again on Sunday at Hollywood Park with the 25th running of the A Gleam Handicap. The A Gleam will be part of a program that includes the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Swaps Stakes, as well as a tribute to Laffit Pincay. If ever there was a day to stash the remote control and go to the races, this is it.

The 2003 version of the A Gleam will be headed by the 5-year-old Affluent and the 4-year-old You, both of them major stakes winners who know how to deal with the challenge of seven furlongs. Last winter at Santa Anita, Affluent defeated Sightseek in the Santa Monica Handicap, and Sightseek has done very little wrong since then. You, on the other hand, was not competitive in the seven-furlong La Brea last December, but her victory over Carson Hollow in the 2002 Test Stakes going seven furlongs at Saratoga is still the stuff of legends.

Were A Gleam in the field against Affluent and You, they would have plenty of pace to follow. During her headstrong youth, A Gleam was a stone speed freak for Ben and Jimmy Jones, ripping off half-miles in 45 and change in an era when tracks were much deeper than today.

As a consequence, A Gleam spent much of her early career getting caught in the final furlong. But, like her famous dam, she found maturity midway through her 3-year-old season.

During the summer of 1952, while racing at Hollywood Park, A Gleam raced six times and won five, including the Milady Handicap by 2 1/2 lengths, the Hollywood Oaks by 2 1/2, the Debonair Stakes by three, the Cinema by 2 1/2 and the Westerner, at 1 1/4 miles, by eight. In case it makes a difference, those last three races were against colts.

Hollywood management had the good sense to change the Sequoia Handicap to the A Gleam in 1978. Since then, fans have been treated to such winners as Great Lady M. (dam of Lady's Secret), Matching, Donstop Themusic, A.P. Assay, and Honest Lady. Last year Eddie Delahoussaye won his fifth A Gleam, aboard Irgun's Angel.

If Delahoussaye had not injured his neck last summer and been forced to retire, he would have been aboard Affluent on Sunday. Instead, Eddie D. will be in the crowd - and presenting the Gold Cup trophy - as Gary Stevens tries to snap Affluent out of her Azeri-induced funk. Over the past year and a half, Affluent has tried Azeri six times and lost six times. On Sunday, Azeri will be safely squirreled away, a hundred miles south of Hollywood in her stall at San Luis Rey, while Affluent takes the stage.

"She's got to prove that she's back to herself," said Jan Whitham, whose family bred Affluent and has enjoyed the mare's $1.4 million in earnings. "She's been a little bit disappointing lately."

Again, keeping things in context, it should be noted that Whitham's idea of a good mare is Bayakoa. The Whithams - Jan and her late husband Frank - raced Bayakoa to Breeders' Cup victories and Eclipse Awards in 1989 and 1990. Affluent is Bayakoa's granddaughter, both of them trained by Ron McAnally.

"She's going to be retired this year whether she's winning or losing," Whitham said. "It would sure be nice to go out with a couple good races, though. But she'll be 6 next year, and I think that's time for mares to go be broodmares. The more wear and tear they've got, it's harder for them to turn into a nice broodmare.

"She's been sound, never broken a bone, so that's helped her have a good career," she added. "The hard part will be prying her away from Ron."

Whitham will miss Affluent's race in the A Gleam. It's harvest time on the Whitham farm, near the western Kansas town of Leoti, and the Whitham family has been hard at work for the last week bringing in the wheat. After two years of winter drought and summer dust, an early spring rain gave rise to a bounteous summer crop that has the neighborhood jumping with activity.

"These plains have a tendency to blow you, and ruffle you, then just bless you the next day with the sun coming out and everybody smiling," Whitham said.

"So we'll be here on Sunday," she added. "Everybody will be getting pretty nervous. But they won't hardly bother me until just about time for the race. Then they'll come tripping in, gather around the TV, and we'll see what happens."