04/28/2004 12:00AM

Oaks field a daunting dozen

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Julio Canani, wearing white pants and a sheepish grin, stopped between barns on the Churchill Downs backstretch Wednesday morning and said with a shrug, "I'm lost."

Not hardly. Canani likes to pretend he is the Peruvian Rodney Dangerfield, as in, "I don't get no respect," although it doesn't sound quite the same after his accent gets through with it. And he gets plenty of respect, as befits a trainer who has won such races as the Breeders' Cup Mile (twice), the Santa Anita Handicap, and scads of other fine stakes.

Now Canani is in town with a California-bred filly, trying to win the $500,000 Kentucky Oaks on Friday, and he knows for a fact that Silent Sighs, winner of the Santa Anita Oaks, will be overlooked in the betting.

"Look what she's up against," he said. "This is the toughest field of fillies I've ever seen."

Enough cold water. Canani loves his chances, and Silent Sighs is looking the part. Barn visitor Jim Pegram thought so, too, although he is prejudiced, since he represents her rider, David Flores.

"Did you see the way she handled the track this morning?" Pegram said, reaching out to stroke the filly's thick brown forelock. "Like she owns it."

"Hey," said a protective Canani, "leave her alone."

A few minutes later, Richard Mandella echoed Canani's sentiments about the Oaks as he put the finishing touches on Halfbridled, reigning champion of the generation.

"I kind of had a feeling it was shaping up a tough one," Mandella said, shortly after Halfbridled breezed three-eighths Wednesday in an effortless 34 seconds. "All the names were in my head, kind of floating around. But it wasn't until I saw the race on paper that it hit me."

Ditto Wally Dollase, proud trainer of Las Virgenes winner A.P. Adventure. He tossed in his concurring two cents with the observation that "the race ought to be worth a million," while Ron McAnally, who has Fantasy winner House of Fortune, noted that they all could have saved on fuel and run the Kentucky Oaks back in California.

"Isn't the whole field from there?" McAnally said with a grin.

Not quite, but close. The Oaks attracted a dozen 3-year-old fillies for its 130th running. And while Ashado, Madcap Escapade, Island Sand, and Last Song have never had the pleasure of a West Coast holiday, the other eight entrants all began the 2004 season in Southern California.

Chief among them was Halfbridled, thanks to an undefeated 2-year-old season capped by her victory over Oaks opponents Ashado, Victory U. S. A., Class Above, and Hollywood Story in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Yet, the champ has not won since, managing only seconds this year to Silent Sighs in the Santa Anita Oaks and Victory U. S. A. in the Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland. Mandella searched through his Hall of Fame experience and may have found the answer, based at least upon Halfbridled's recent works at Churchill Downs.

After taking steps to regulate the effects of Halfbridled's monthly cycle, Mandella added daily cyclotronic massage to her schedule, a therapeutic session administered by none other than Murray Johnson, the Kentucky-based trainer of the accomplished Perfect Drift.

"It's a deep stimulation to bone and muscle that really relaxes them," said Johnson, as he ran a hand unit over Halfbridled's rich, mahogany neck and shoulders. "While I was doing it the other day, she fell asleep with her head on the hayrack."

If Halfbridled wakes up to her form of the Breeders' Cup, the Oaks might be history. Still, several other members of this remarkable generation have developed star power since last October, including House of Fortune, a California-bred daughter of Free House, and A.P. Adventure.

"They all took a shot at keeping her boxed in down there in Hot Springs," McAnally said, recalling House of Fortune's effort in the Fantasy. "They won't be able to do that in here. No way you can be watching just one horse in this field."

As for A.P. Adventure, her only loss was in the Santa Anita Oaks, and for a while it was back to the drawing board.

"I thought about putting blinkers on her, because she's still a little green," Dollase said, as A.P. Adventure grazed outside her Churchill Downs barn. "But I decided against it. She could get the wrong message and show too much speed, and I think the way to win this race is to lay back and finish big down that long stretch."

Californians take the Kentucky Oaks all the time - six of the last 10, in fact - so it's no big deal. California-breds, however, are another story. Since the Oaks became a race worth winning, beginning in 1977 with its first purse of $100,000, the only Cal-bred winner has been Fran's Valentine in 1985.a Canani can see it happening again Friday, although he's not sure which one.

"McAnally's filly is the one to beat," Canani said, harking back to the one-two finish of House of Fortune and Silent Sighs in the California Cup Juvenile Fillies last November. "And my filly that day wasn't even ready to run a mile and a sixteenth. Now look at her."

Look at them all, and enjoy the view.