07/28/2002 11:00PM

Meet Affluent's Ms. Stanwyck

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Farm life being what it is, oriented primarily toward plants and animals, Janis Whitham figured she'd better stay home and tend to the welfare of the beasts rather than fly to California for last Saturday's $400,000 Ramona Handicap. Affluent was in good hands, with Ron McAnally and Eddie Delahoussaye in her corner. She would just have to win without her.

So she did.

"It's been so hot and dry," Whitham said Sunday morning from her spread near the western Kansas town of Leoti (population 1,738). "Animals are at risk when you've got 105 to 108 degree temperatures. I've got cows, horses, dogs, cats - been so hot the cats got skinny.

"We've actually not had a rain at all this summer," Whitham went on. "Oats we planted in March didn't make it. And the dry land farming, where they can't afford to put down wells and pump, won't raise a crop at all this year."

Whitham is the modern Barbara Stanwyck of this outpost, the star of her own "Big Valley," as the widowed matriarch with the spirit of iron. Whitham has been able to count on daughter Jennifer and sons Jeff, Stewart, Barth, and Clay ever since the death of their father, Frank Whitham, in a private plane crash nine years ago.

With the advice of McAnally and Kentucky farm manager Frank Penn, Whitham and her children have nurtured a breeding and racing stable that remains, pound for pound, one of the most successful in the game. Year after year, the Whithams always seem to have at least one major stakes horse running loose and a couple more on the boil.

While Frank was alive, there was Ibero, Ultrasonido, and champions Bayakoa and Tight Spot. Since that awful December day, when Whitham's jet went down 100 miles northwest of Leoti, there has followed Mud Route, Listening, Cleante, and Toda Una Dama.

And now Affluent, who was returning to the sight of her near miss in the 2001 Del Mar Oaks. Clay Whitham and his family were at Del Mar on Saturday while another batch hunkered down at Jan's house to watch on TVG.

"First, I was worried she'd be the target," Jan began, recalling the race frame by frame. "You don't want to be the target in a grass race like that because they all come after you at the end.

"When Janet went on, that was all right," Whitham continued. "But then Eddie needed to get out, because there was another filly coming up on the right. She had room, but then she had to go get Janet, and out of the corner of your eye here comes Golden Apples, just like she did last summer when she blindsided us in the Oaks. By the time it was over, I was exhausted."

Affluent cut it close, holding off Golden Apples to win by a neck.

Defending Ramona champ Janet was a noble third.

"The first thing Stewart says to me is, 'Now maybe you won't be so grouchy.'" Whitham laughed at the thought. "I guess, with the heat and all, I have been a little grouchy. I'll have to watch that."

She had a right, at least as far as Affluent was concerned. After winning the La Brea and El Encino Stakes in late December and January, Affluent got all tangled in the Azeri machine. In the Apple Blossom, the Milady, and the Vanity it was the same story: Azeri first, Affluent the best of the rest.

"Affluent ran her race every time," Whitham said. "And if she could get eye to eye with Azeri at some point it would be a horse race. As it is, we come from way back there because she doesn't like dirt in her face, so we can't get to Azeri early enough. In the meantime Azeri's had her own way, coasting along in front, just like Bayakoa."

The comparison runs deeper than mere historical footnote. Bayakoa was the spirited, tongue-lolling speed freak who put Frank and Jan Whitham on the racing map with back-to-back Eclipse Awards in 1989 and 1990.

Bayakoa is also Affluent's granddam, through her unraced daughter Trinity Place.

Affluent has reached the summer of her 4-year-old season as the most versatile member of her generation, and among the most durable. In addition to Azeri, her contemporaries include Summer Colony, Golden Ballet, Exogenous, Gold Mover, Flute, Fleet Renee, Unbridled Elaine, and champion Xtra Heat.

After winning the Hollywood Oaks on dirt and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup on grass last year, Affluent added another layer of value by winning the La Brea at seven furlongs. At that point, the offers already were coming in.

Whitham was not inclined to sell, and still isn't.

Bayakoa is dead. Affirmed is dead. And so is Strawberry Road, the sire of Trinity Place. Some assets you hold because they may be one of a kind. Forever.

"There's not that many girls," Whitham said. "Bayakoa had only two daughters, and Trinity Place has had just the one - Affluent. Maybe somebody else would do a lot better with her than we would. But to us, it's a special family."

Then she excused herself. Outside, the mercury was creeping over 90.

It was time to take care of her horses.