06/08/2007 12:00AM

Not all Oaks are created equal


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is becoming harder and harder to take the Hollywood Oaks seriously, but don't blame the 3-year-old fillies involved.

Nope, it's the two-legged, human-type deciders who were responsible for slashing a half-furlong off the traditional 1 1/8-mile distance five years ago, and then stuffing a Breeders' Cup plug between "Hollywood" and "Oaks" in order to get $50,000 worth of product placement money - just enough money, as it happens, to be able to advertise the race at $150,000, meeting the minimum requirement for a Grade 2 event.

The verdict is harsh, but times are tough. The people who run Hollywood are willing to pony up only $100,000 for a race that was once one of the premier events of their spring and summer season, won by the likes of Miz Clementine, Straight Deal, Turkish Trousers, Heartlight No. One, Hollywood Wildcat, and Lakeway.

In fairness, Hollywood has put a lot of money and effort into making the American Oaks a destination event, with a brief history that has already made an international impact. The sixth running of the American Oaks, set for July 7, figures to be another exciting occasion, which it should be for $750,000 at a historically proper distance of 10 furlongs on turf.

Among the eight running in Sunday's Hollywood Oaks, one intriguing entrant is Spenditallbaby, a daughter of the popular California stallion Unusual Heat who usually puts herself in the game from the start. Trained by Barry Abrams, Spenditallbaby has yet to win in stakes competition, although it hasn't been for lack of trying. Among her placings have been seconds and thirds over four different surfaces in the Black Swan, the Sharp Cat, the Hidden Light, and the Miesque.

Abrams isn't sure he's running yet - he'd like to see a little less pace in the field, especially since speed is the key with the short run into the first turn going 1 1/16 miles - but nothing much has stopped him so far. Spenditallbaby raced an admirable nine times as a 2-year-old, got a break of about five months, and now has run three times since May 12, winning an allowance race on the Hollywood grass along the way.

"I'm a believer in the way the old-timers approached it," Abrams said. "When they're good, run them. When they're not, give them a rest.

"The last time she ran was the first time she was worse than fourth in her life," Abrams noted, referring to the Manhattan Beach Handicap on June 2. "I'm not making excuses, but it was also the first time I hadn't been able to school her the afternoon before the race, because of Friday night racing. I didn't want to disrupt her feeding schedule to school at night, so I didn't, and she washed out bad the next day before the race."

Abrams said he would school Spenditallbaby on Saturday afternoon, then wait and see who stayed in the Oaks field before deciding whether or not to run. The race favorites include Tough Tiz's Sis, winner of the 1 1/16-mile Sunland Park Oaks, and Silver Swallow, second to Rags to Riches in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Anita Oaks.

Few racing terms are perverted more than "Oaks," perhaps because it was an afterthought in the first place, coming along in the wake of the Derby at Epsom. Apparently, Lord Derby and his pals thought there should be a cracking good race for fillies as well. The decision was made during a party at an inn called The Oaks, during which they presumably consumed so much grog that when it came to naming the new event, all they could do was read the neon sign blinking overhead as they staggered into the night.

And so it came to pass, centuries later, that the idea of an Oaks to go along with a Derby had proliferated far and wide. Imagine the desperation, though, when Englishmen decrying the slump in fields for the storied Yorkshire Oaks ordained in 1991 that it be opened to all females at least age 3. Retaining the Oaks part of its name served as cover for a few years - especially for those of us who only occasionally paid attention - but when that grand filly Islington won the Yorkshire Oaks in both 2002 and 2003, the jig was up. Yorkshire, ye ain't no Oaks.

The primary example of Oaks abuse on this side of the pond has been perpetrated by the Sunshine Millions package of California and Florida events run in January since 2002. Each time around, there has been a race for 3-year-old fillies, which is just fine. It is run at six furlongs, which is okay, but proves nothing. And it is called the Sunshine Millions Oaks, which is a crock.

Oaks, by both tradition and practical application, are designed to weed the breed. True Oaks winners usually have blue hen broodmare stamped all over their fine, child-bearing hips. It is commendable that the American Oaks at Hollywod Park mirrors the Coaching Club American Oaks as 1 1/4-mile events that demand the treasured trifecta of stamina, speed, and class, but they could use some company.