03/24/2005 12:00AM

Megahertz worthy heir to vacant throne


ARCADIA, Calif. - The queens are dead. The torch was passed. Then, in the flash of a frantic final quarter, little Megahertz stepped up to breathe life into an American female turf division badly in need of an inspirational leader.

For the past month, division headquarters has been draped in black crepe. The Feb. 23 death of All Along, at age 26, followed two days later by Estrapade, who was 25, put a damper on business. You always hate to lose the old masters, the tribal elders, whose mere presence tends to elevate the class of the herd.

At the same time, their passing exhumed grand memories. All Along staked a legitimate claim as the best horse in the world in 1983 when she won major events in France, Canada, and the U.S. against bewildered males. Three years later, Estrapade reached her peak when she became the first mare (and still the only) to win the Arlington Million. For emphasis she later added the Oak Tree Invitational, beating Theatrical, no less.

"I still think that was her best race," said Fernando Toro, who rode Estrapade to her most noteworthy wins for Charlie Whittingham and Allen Paulson. "She let me slow down the pace, and we went wire-to-wire going a mile and a half that day. I can still hear Shoemaker behind me, on heels, screaming for room.

"She was built like a gazelle. I remember thinking that whenever I sat on Estrapade, I could never feel her touch the ground."

The closest Estrapade and All Along came to crossing paths was in the autumn of 1983 at Longchamp, near Paris. Estrapade, 3 at the time, finished second in the prestigious Prix Vermeille in only the third start of her career, which is kind of like hitting the board in the Beldame while still eligible for a one-other-than allowance. Three weeks later, the 4-year-old All Along won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the first of four straight international victories.

Estrapade and All Along qualified as unquestionably great mares because they hit all the right notes. They were durable. They traveled. And they beat the boys at their own game.

Megahertz is getting there, in her own stubborn way. Her emergence at age 6 last Sunday in the Santa Ana Handicap was a welcome sight. There was brief talk of her retirement last fall, after her frustrating effort in deep going in the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park. Then, after Megahertz nearly won the Hollywood Turf Cup, Bobby Frankel and owner Michael Bello decided to roll the dice for another season, and good for them. The nine-furlong Santa Ana was the perfect start.

As always, Megahertz feigned disinterest until late in the dance, at which point Alex Solis reminded her, with the mere shake of the stick, that the game was afoot. Bang-zoom went Megahertz, and just like that the fine mare Katdogawn was reduced to second best, and probably tears.

"She's amazing," said Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's assistant and the man who has had Megahertz under his eye for the past three years. "She only runs a quarter of a mile. Alex knows her so well, he doesn't abuse her. He just shows her the whip and she takes off. She knows what to do."

Last year, Megahertz did it well enough to run winning races in five of her six starts. Two were close seconds, the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf was a throwout, and the 2004 version of the Santa Ana was a heartbreak, when she was disqualified from first to last.

Victor Espinoza rode her that day for the first time, stepping in for Solis, who was otherwise occupied winning the Dubai World Cup aboard Pleasantly Perfect. Megahertz later went without Solis while he was recovering from surgery to repair a fractured vertebra, but she was among his first stops when he began working back into shape this winter.

"He loves this filly," Ascanio said. "A couple works back, he said he couldn't believe how good she was training."

If Ascanio is to be believed, Megahertz is the perfect, no-frills professional racehorse who, in his words, "trains herself." The trick is keeping her at peace, and giving her a wide berth when she is not on the track, happily galloping under Marco Ramirez. At rest, Megahertz is kind of a grouch, requiring her groom, Dimitrio Bautista, to mind every flinch and twitch.

"She's very tough in her stall," Ascanio said. "Dimitrio has been with her for about a year now. Her groom before that, though, she bit him pretty bad. She just doesn't like affection."

As long as Megahertz keeps mowing down the competition, who cares if she's cuddly? The game needs stars like her on the track, year after year, building a circle of fans and making a case that maybe the breed isn't that frail after all.

* Dept. of Credit Where Credit Is Due: Contrary to the impression left in this space on Friday, Eoin Harty was not involved as Bob Baffert's assistant in the victory of Captain Steve in the 2001 Dubai World Cup. By then, Harty had moved on to his job with Godolphin Racing. Baffert's right-hand man in Dubai that year was assistant trainer Tim Yakteen, and he has the picture to prove it.