08/26/2004 11:00PM

Moscow Burning goes for the books

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Jim Cassidy was wondering if a filly or a mare had ever bothered to win the Del Mar Handicap. It was a fair question, since Cassidy was about to enter Moscow Burning in Sunday's $250,000 affair at 11 furlongs on the grass against a field of unfriendly males, and the trainer was hoping that he would not be required to both win the race and make history at the same time. There's enough pressure just leading them over.

Since the answer did not immediately come to mind, a call was placed to Del Mar's resident racing historian, Fernando Toro, retired professor of all-around horsemanship on permanent loan from the Chile's Club Hipico de Santiago. He answered on the first ring.

"I just got back from a walk on the beach with Alex Solis," Toro explained.

"That's nice, but I have a question," the caller said. "How's your memory these days?"

"Pretty good," Toro replied, "as long as you don't ask me what happened last week. Is that the question?"

"No, this goes way back," said the caller. "You know, in the old days when you were still riding. Has a filly or a mare ever won the Del Mar Handicap?"

"Of course," Toro replied. "Hill Circus. I think it was the early 1970's."

Give that man a Macanudo. Toro, retired since 1990, rode Hill Circus to victory in the first division of the 1972 Del Mar Handicap against a field of males that included major stakes winners War Heim and Wing Out.

It wasn't the last time Toro pulled such a stunt. Later came Royal Heroine, winner of the 1984 Breeders' Cup Mile, and Estrapade, still the only mare to win the Arlington Million.

Before 1972, the only other female to win the Del Mar Handicap was Iron Maiden. For purposes of this discussion, however, 1947 really does not pertain, since the race in those days was at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

The early 1970's featured seven runnings of the Del Mar Handicap at 11 furlongs on grass, then a return to the main track for 10 versions at a shortened 10 furlongs on dirt. Although some good horses won it - Precisionist and Ancient Title among them - no one was about to take a race seriously that advertised itself at "about" a mile and a quarter. Sounded too much like the metric system at work.

Order was restored in 1986 and the Del Mar Handicap was returned to 1 3/8 miles on grass, which means Moscow Burning will be dealing with the precedent of exactly one other filly winning in 25 similar runnings. She will have company on Sunday - Dimitrova also will try the boys - but it is Moscow Burning who offers an attractive mix of speed, stamina, and solid recent form, not to mention a rags-to-riches angle that always sells well.

She arrived at the Cassidy stable in August of 2003, fresh from a $25,000 claim at the Bay Meadows Fair by owner Dallas Van Kempen. (Mike Nentwig and Jeff Mariani soon became partners.) To describe her as a handful is being polite.

"She was a challenge," Cassidy confirmed. "She'd run over the pony, bolt to the rail, fighting all the time. We went through a couple of riders. If you'd been up early at Santa Anita one morning, you would have seen me leading her down the middle of the track, just trying to get her to go off."

Slowly but surely, Moscow Burning came to trust her new surroundings, although she is not quite sure yet about taking a therapeutic roll in Cassidy's accommodating sand pile.

"She'll stick her toe in it," Cassidy said. "But I don't think she wants to roll around in front of people."

No problem. Moscow Burning has earned the right to be choosy. Over the past nine months, the Cassidy crew has been rewarded with a string of fine performances, from victories in the Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont and the California Cup Distaff to second-place finishes in such marquee events as the Beverly Hills Handicap, the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf and, most recently, the John C. Mabee at Del Mar.

In sending Moscow Burning against the boys, Cassidy is playing to her easy, loping speed over a distance of ground. It will be Jose Valdivia's job to decide when and where to use that speed. Fernando Toro is Valdivia's uncle.

"In the race before the [1972] Del Mar Handicap, I was riding Street Dancer," Toro recalled, referring to the Ramona Handicap. "Hill Circus came flying and just missed catching us by a nose. Then, when I rode Hill Circus against the boys, you know where she was? On the lead all the way, just galloping along.

"The reason I went to the lead, though, was because of the post. I was on the outside, and that can be tough with that short run to the turn going a mile and three-eighths.

"I could look around for film of that race to show Jose," Toro added. "But it was so long ago it would probably be in black and white. When nobody wants the lead and you find yourself on the lead - take it. If you don't, it's like refusing a check for $100,000!"