06/30/2005 11:00PM

Melhor Ainda vs. the world

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Unbeaten Melhor Ainda faces global test in American Oaks at Hollywood.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It may take an international cast of 3-year-old fillies to finally give the undefeated Melhor Ainda a proper test in Sunday's $750,000 American Oaks at Hollywood Park. Perfect after four starts, including three stakes wins, Melhor Ainda will be a strong favorite in the American Oaks, the richest turf race in the nation for 3-year-old fillies.

Like the past three runnings, the Grade 1 American Oaks has drawn fillies from around the world, including stakes winners from Japan, Italy, and Ireland.

The American Oaks is the eighth race on an 11-race program, which includes four other graded stakes. The program begins at noon and features a $1 million guaranteed pick six pool as well as guaranteed pools for some exacta, trifecta, and pick three bets.

Aside from , a locally based graded stakes winner.

Even if they all run their best races, it might not be enough to beat Melhor Ainda.

Owned by TNT Stud, Melhor Ainda was hand-ridden by jockey John Velazquez in the final furlong of her latest win, the Grade 3 Sands Point Handicap at Belmont Park on June 5. She was nearly galloping under the wire as she won by 2 3/4 lengths.

"She hasn't been tested in any of her races," said trainer Bobby Frankel.

The scenario was the same when she won the Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland in April and two starts last year at Belmont and Keeneland.

Frankel speaks in awe of Melhor Ainda, as if what she has accomplished so far is only the prologue to greater things.

"She's fast," he said. "She's a very nice filly. Only time will tell how good she is."

Melhor Ainda will be trying 1 1/4 miles for the first time, which may be her only point of vulnerability.

Cesario is proven over the distance, having won the Japanese Oaks over 1 1/2 miles on May 22. Last year, the Japanese-based Dance in the Mood was favored in the American Oaks and finished a game second to Ticker Tape.

Cesario showed a quick turn of foot to win the Japanese Oaks, leading only in the final strides. The same late rally did not work in the Japanese 1000 Guineas over a mile in April, when she fell short by a head.

With 13 fillies in the American Oaks, a trouble-free trip will be vital for the stalkers and closers. Jockey Yuichi Fukunaga said Cesario can be near the pace or farther back.

"It depends on the jump," he said through an interpreter, referring to the start. "She can get any position and any style."

Luas Line and Silver Cup are considered the top contenders from Europe, but are untested over 1 1/4 miles.

David Wachman, who trains Luas Line, said his filly needs the firm turf characteristic of the Hollywood Park turf course.

Silver Cup, the mount of Gary Stevens, will be trying to win her fifth consecutive start. She overcame trouble in the Italian 1000 Guineas on May 15 to win by three-quarters of a length.

In last year's American Oaks, Ticker Tape rallied from fifth to score an 11-1 upset. She began her career in England and was sent to California the preceding winter.

Three Degrees has had the same career arc. Her win in the Grade 2 Honeymoon Breeders' Cup Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on June 5 suggested that she can handle 1 1/4 miles on turf.

Three Degrees has been outstanding in her races this year, going from a maiden at the start of the year to a graded stakes winner in four starts for trainer Paddy Gallagher.

A closer, Three Degrees will need some luck for jockey Jerry Bailey to negotiate his way through the field.

"The way she trains, you hope the foundation keeps her improving a little each time," Gallagher said.

"I think every time you jump up you have to improve because you're meeting better fillies."

On Sunday, that means facing Melhor Ainda and a strong international cast.

The field

American Oaks
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/4 miles, turf ; Grade 1

1MemoretteK. Desormeaux 30-1
2Hallowed DreamP. Valenzuela 30-1
3ThatswhatimeanD. Flores30-1
4Isla CozzeneC. Nakatani30-1
5Melhor AindaJ. Velazquez8-5
6Luas LineR. Douglas30-1
7Silver CupG. Stevens5-1
8Silk And ScarletV. Espinoza30-1
9Sweet FirebirdA. Solis50-1
10LouvainT. Baze20-1
11Three DegreesJ. Bailey3-1
12SinghaleseG. Gomez30-1
13CesarioY. Fukunaga7-2

* Blinkers on: Sweet Firebird
* All starters carry 121 pounds
* Odds by Art Gropper