07/03/2002 11:00PM

Oaks has that long-run look


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It takes a lot of luck to produce a hit. What if nobody cares? What if the reviews are cool? What if the money runs out, the backers split, or the thing is a total flop? Not every show can be "Springtime for Hitler."

On Saturday afternoon, under bright blue holiday skies, the curtain will go up on the first running of the $500,000 American Oaks at Hollywood Park. A full gate of 14 fillies, all of them 3 years old, is advertised, which is enough to raise eyebrows from the start.

Don't be overly impressed by the numbers, though. Hollywood management secured most of the field by paying their way to California. But don't be unkind. With few exceptions, the creators of every innovative racing event have primed the pump with such up-front hospitality. Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker is unapologetic.

"We are determined to make the American Oaks the best race possible," he said. "We committed from our promotional budget accordingly."

The American Oaks is a brainchild of Hollywood racing secretary Martin Panza. If he sleeps Friday night, it will be a miracle.

"I can say it's a great idea all I want," Panza said. "The bottom line is how the press receives it, how many fans come to see it, and how fans bet on it around the country."

Panza and his co-producers are attempting to do nothing less than establish a tradition. How tough is that? And how hard it is to maintain even the best idea?

The Oak Tree Racing Association couldn't do it with its National Thoroughbred Championship, which was also called Champions, but which lasted only two years (1975-76) before folding due to lack of network television commitment. Among the horses drawn to the fleeting flame were Allez France, Ancient Title, Dulcia, Tizna, King Pellinore, Forceten, Royal Glint and Festive Mood.

Maryland racing now has failed twice in sustaining the Pimlico Special. The event, which began in the late 1930's with winners War Admiral, Seabiscuit and Challedon, first disappeared in 1959, then was resurrected in 1988. Cigar, Gentlemen, and Skip Away were among the latter-day winners. The race was dumped this year when the Maryland Jockey Club found other places to spend its purse money. If it ever returns, please change its name to the Not So Special After All.

Even the Washington D.C. International died a whimpering death after 43 years of noble service. When the International made its debut at Laurel Race Course a half a century ago, in November 1952, there was nothing like it in the world. But by 1995 it had been reduced from 1 1/2 miles to a mere mile. Then it was gone.

Again, Maryland racing was the steward. In this case, however, the blame for the International's demise rests squarely with the Breeders' Cup, and with the compression of top fall grass racing into a one-month window of Breeders' Cup preps. While such events as the Turf Classic, Oak Tree Invitational, and Canadian International were diluted by the Breeders' Cup, the International did not have the resources to survive.

The American Oaks appaears to be Breeders' Cup-proof. It highlights a division usually ignored, while casting its net internationally. Its only perceived drawback is a lack of graded status, and that artificial designation should be in place by 2004. In the meantime, it is Panza's short-term goal to seek the kind of sponsorship that will help double the purse. At a million large, the American Oaks would be hard to ignore by even the cream of international stables.

The field for the first American Oaks sustained a few last-minute defections, primarily Portella and Tomori, the one-two finishers from the German 1,000 Guineas (obviously in mourning from the World Cup results), and Adoration, winner of the Hollywood Oaks.

For the most part, Panza's original wish list is well represented with the likes of Megahertz, Arabic Song, Saranac Lake, Distant Valley, Dublino, Riskaverse, and Maliziosa. Ireland, France, New York, Kentucky, and Florida have provided a broad range of talent. Of the 14 entered, eight needed an airplane to get here.

One has come by horse van from Golden Gate. A B Noodle, winner of the Bay Meadows Oaks, arrived at Hollywood earlier in the week. She will be the longest shot in the American Oaks, which prompted trainer Chuck Jenda to wonder, "You're not going to make fun of us, are you?" when a reporter called.

Hardly. Longshots are very much the American way. A B Noodle is a developing daughter of Alphabet Soup who sports a Beyer Figure that fits right with the leading contenders. Besides, it was either this or the $30,000 Senorita Stakes at the Alameda County Fair, and that race didn't fill.

"Whether or not she can go this far against this kind of competition remains to be seen," Jenda said.

Fair warning. But let's hope the American Oaks is in for the long haul.