04/05/2005 11:00PM

No formula for beating boys

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It has happened before and it will happen again, maybe as soon as this Saturday. A filly can win the Santa Anita Derby - Sweet Catomine will try for Pam and Marty Wygod - but that filly must be made of something very special.

The ingredients, however, are unclear. There's not really much to go on. Ciencia did it in 1939, scattering a field of 13 helpless males, but she was never that good again. Silver Spoon did it in 1959, and no one was really surprised, since such antics were, after all, a family tradition. Then Winning Colors did it with authority in 1988, intimidating the boys with her size and speed.

Sweet Catomine, if she is lucky, embodies elements from each. Without a doubt, she must run the best race of her life to win, just as Ciencia summoned all her resources on Feb. 22, 1939, for the fifth running of the Santa Anita Derby.

Racing for Bob and Helen Kleberg, Ciencia was a striking, dark brown filly who got her name from her dam, Science, a daughter of Star Master. Ciencia began her career at Santa Anita in January of 1938 and was good enough to hit the board in 10 of 13 starts at age 2, including a second-place finish in the Matron Stakes at Belmont.

At the time, Helen Kleberg Groves was 11 years old and living on her family's King Ranch in Texas, where Ciencia spent part of the winter. As Groves tells the tale, the Santa Anita Derby was hardly in the cards.

"She got very, very sick, with what they called distemper in those days," Groves said this week from her home at King Ranch. "Johnny Armstrong, our trainer here, got her well with a case of whiskey and eggs. I don't know if it was a case of each, but it worked, and she ran marvelously that winter."

Trained in California by Buddy Hirsch, Ciencia prepped for the Santa Anita Derby by winning an allowance race against males eight days before the big dance. In the derby itself, Ciencia came running from the back of the crowded pack with a big midrace move, then kept on going to win by five under Carroll Bierman. Among the beaten were Belmont Futurity winner Porter's Mite, San Vicente winner Impound, and another filly, Sweet Nancy, winner of the Santa Susana. Back at King Ranch, hats flew.

"In those days we had to wait for a phone call to find out about a big race, or if we were lucky it might be broadcast on the radio," Groves recalled. "It was a proud day."

Ciencia had five more starts without winning, one of them a last-place finish in the Preakness. Winning Colors, on the other hand, went from the Santa Anita Derby directly into the history books, which is the goal being set for Sweet Catomine.

"I'll certainly have my fingers crossed for her," said Joyce Klein, who raced Winning Colors with her late husband, San Diego Chargers owner Gene Klein. "The Wygods are friends, and I'd love to see them experience what we did."

If nothing else, a young filly needs physical scope to compete in the rough and tumble world of 3-year-old racing. Sweet Catomine is a good-sized filly, but Winning Colors could make even the stoutest colt feel woefully inadequate.

"She was huge," Klein recalled. "You didn't think of her as being at any disadvantage. And she was so strong that day in the Santa Anita Derby. After that, she gave us something not many people have in this life - a chance to win the Kentucky Derby."

One month later, Winning Colors parlayed her front-running 7 1/2-length Santa Anita Derby victory into glory at Churchill Downs, joining Regret and Genuine Risk as the only fillies to win America's most famous horse race.

Silver Spoon had raced but once - winning a maiden claimer - when she came West from New York in late 1958 with the powerhouse stable of C.V. "Sonny" Whitney and his new wife, Marylou.

"We wanted Charlie Whittingham to train our horses, but we had too many, so Charlie recommended 'this cowboy' by the name of Bob Wheeler," said Marylou Whitney, who has revived the Whitney stable with runners like Birdstone and Bird Town. "Charlie said he was as good as any trainer he'd seen, and he was right.

"Silver Spoon had such a gimp hip, but it didn't really bother her," Whitney went on. "Still, Bob Wheeler would keep a small blanket over the hip until the jockey was up, so the vet wouldn't be tempted to take her out of the race. I learned about the will to win from Silver Spoon. She had the heart."

Like Sweet Catomine has this winter, Silver Spoon swept through her filly competition until there was nothing left to do but try the colts. The 1959 Santa Anita Derby field included eventual Preakness winner Royal Orbit and the 1960 Santa Anita Handicap winner, Linmold, but it didn't matter. Silver Spoon stalked the pace - Sweet Catomine style - and won by 2 1/2 lengths.

"It was quite a feat," Whitney recalled. "Before he ran her, Sonny thought about it a lot. I remember how Ivor Balding, who was running our farm, and some of the other fellows would sit around and say to Sonny, 'Look, your daddy did it, why can't you?' "

In this case, daddy was Harry Payne Whitney, the owner of Regret.