07/05/2004 11:00PM

Oaks was Ticker Tape's parade

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Jim Ford spent last Friday afternoon chasing a golf ball around Los Angeles Country Club in the company of Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker and racing secretary Martin Panza. For Ford, it was a way to keep his mind off what might happen the following day, only it didn't work out quite that way.

"It was brutal," Ford said. "I totally embarrassed myself. I parred the first two, then the wheels came off. I told Martin I was saving all my luck for tomorrow."

As it turned out, Ford ended up with good fortune to spare. Ticker Tape, the filly Ford owns in partnership with Jack Sweesy and Deron Pearson, got a dream trip to win the $750,000 American Oaks last Saturday at Hollywood Park, demoralizing an international field and rising immediately to the head of her class.

"Can you believe I didn't bet?" Ford said, still shaking his head at the odds of 12-1. Still, there was some consolation in the winner's prize of $450,000. "That's what I'm told," he added, still dazed. "I think it's a bit rich."

So was everything else about this third running of the American Oaks, from the media horde following Japanese filly Dance in the Mood, to the last-minute cosmetic touches to the turf course, to the relatively chaos-free unfolding of the race, despite the crowded field of 13.

Thanks to the pre-race strategy laid out by trainer Jim Cassidy and deployed by Kent Desormeaux, Ticker Tape had the best trip of all. With barely a blade of dyed-green grass in her path, she was able to get the jump on favored Dance in the Mood at key points in the 1 1/4-mile race, building a fat lead in midstretch and cruising home a length in front.

To be sure, such European fillies as Misty Heights and Steel Princess deserved better luck in the running, and New Zealand's Boulevardofdreams did well to split the field after being crowded at the start. But they all knew the rules when they arrived, and it should be painfully clear by now that the highest levels of American grass racing require an animal who can break, turn, quicken, and punch hard with both leads.

It was especially tough to swallow the sight of Dance in the Mood, Japan's best 3-year-old filly and the 7-5 favorite, tiptoeing her way around the final turn before jockey Yutaka Take raised his hands and let her fly. By then it was way too late, for Desormeaux had put Ticket Tape to a drive on the final bend, sweeping past Dance in the Mood to grab the initiative.

Trainer Kazuo Fujisawa conceded that Dance in the Mood was at sea on the turns (even though her sire, Sunday Silence, was perhaps the finest turn runner of the past 25 years), while Take paid tribute to Desormeaux for keeping Dance in the Mood pinned behind pacesetting Western Hemisphere and inside the tracking Western Ransom just long enough to make the difference.

"If my horse and the winner switch positions, I feel I would have won," Take said.

Danny Sorenson, who picked up the mount on Hollywood Story after Patrick Valenzuela's latest exit, had a good view of the proceedings. His filly was making her first start on grass.

"This turf course has a pretty short stretch, so you have to be running on the turn," Sorenson said, after coming home a solid third. "I'm tracking Take, so I needed him to go on and get out of my way. My filly is one of those nice, long-striding types, while Kent's has that sprinter's acceleration. When he chirped to her, she dropped, shortened stride to get a couple quick ones in, then reached again and she was gone."

Ticker Tape spent last year sprinting in small English stakes and handicaps for trainer Jamie Osborne, winning two of six. Two days after arriving in California for her new owners, the filly was tossed into the Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park and came flying late to finish second to Mambo Slew. At that point, Cassidy wasn't exactly thinking American Oaks. He was just glad he'd bought a runner.

"I'd bought two other horses off Jamie and had no luck with them," Cassidy said. "It probably wasn't his fault, but I gave him crap about it anyway. I can be that way sometimes."

The trainer laughed, and no one standing near him disagreed. As a boy from the Bronx with the requisite in-your-face sensibilities, Cassidy is a guy who rarely bothers to sugarcoat an opinion. And with a background in show horses and Thoroughbred experience on both coasts, the 58-year-old Cassidy is just jaded enough to figure that winning an American Oaks makes sense, even though it was his first victory in a Grade 1 event.

Cassidy especially enjoyed the fact that it was accomplished against an array of training talent that included Neil Drysdale, Bob Baffert, Bobby Frankel, Michael Dickinson, Dermot Weld, and Patrick Biancone.

"Up until the next race, I was the best trainer in the world," Cassidy cracked. It didn't take long for that bubble to burst. But chances are, the glow of the American Oaks will stick around for quite awhile.