06/30/2004 11:00PM

Put down PP's, pick up map


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Get out the Advil and dust off the dartboard. It's time once again for California's most confusing parimutuel event, and if there are handicappers out there with a strong opinion about the outcome of the $750,000 American Oaks, they must be looking at some other horse race.

On Saturday at Hollywood, the third running of the 1 1/4-mile Oaks sports the usual international flair, with representatives of the breed hailing from England, Ireland, France, Japan, New Zealand, Kentucky, and - gasp! - even California. American audiences have grown accustomed to such collections of talent, epitomized each fall in the three grass races offered on the Breeders' Cup program, so nothing should come as a surprise.

However, the mish-mash of Breeders' Cup form is an easy "Dick and Jane" read compared to the hieroglyphics offered by the 14 fillies running in the Oaks. Next to these PP's, tea leaves are a breeze.

Unless, of course, one can comfortably parse the difference between finishing 10th of 17 in the Prix de Diane, Old Europe's premier distance event for the division, and winning the Dunedin Guineas at Wingatui Race Course in New Zealand. High marks to those who can sort through the relative merits of such contests as Japan's Hai Flower Cup, Australia's Adrian Knox Stakes, and Ireland's Victor McCalmont Memorial.

Eight fillies in the field have comprehensive domestic form, which offers some relief through Beyer Figures and common foes. Unfortunately, none of those races translates well when matched against the array of Oakses and Guineases sprinkled among the imports, even though they took place at tracks with names like Trentham, Randwick, Hanshin, and Leopardstown.

Stir in the fact that three of the fillies - Eternal Melody, French Lady, and Boulevardofdreams - are nearly 4-year-olds because of their Southern Hemispheric origins, and you have the final ingredient for this chaotic recipe. These older girls must carry four pounds more as a penalty. Such compensation might help neutralize the seven months' difference between New Zealander French Lady, foaled in September, and Kentucky's Mambo Slew, who hit the ground in April, but it may also seem unfair to Eternal Melody (a New Zealand November foal) when compared to, say, Kentucky's Western Ransom, who hit the ground in February.

As a result, a few subjective tools must be deployed. None of the Americans has ever been 1 1/4 miles. None of the invaders has ever faced Hollywood's tight 10-furlong course, which starts with a curving chute that spins the horses onto the main straight. Perhaps, the advantage will go to one of these, for less than obvious reasons:

* Dance in the Mood, because she is considered Japan's best 3-year-old filly, and because she reminds everyone so much of her sire, Sunday Silence, who was last seen at Hollywood Park pinning his ears from the lash of Pat Valenzuela's whip and losing to Criminal Type in the 1990 Hollywood Gold Cup. Dance in the Mood is infused with her sire's hot moods - they're all crazy like the Borgias - but she runs with a ferocity that could pay off in the final mad dash to the wire.

* Maybe Western Hemisphere, because the Bob Baffert stable is now home to major 10-furlong turf winners (see Sabiango in the Whittingham Memorial), because she likes the course, and because her full brother, General Challenge, got the distance twice in his life when he won the Pacific Classic at 3 and the Santa Anita Handicap at 4. That, and she has four long white stockings and one white eyelash. The right eyelash.

"I'm not sure she liked going as slow as she did the other day," said assistant trainer Tim Yakteen, referring to Western Hemisphere's 50-second foxtrot through the first half-mile of the Honeymoon Handicap. She ended up losing by a nose. "She's used to working faster than that."

* Then there is Misty Heights, simply because she was sent here by Dermot Weld, the proven master of the international raid. Fresh from winning the Irish Derby at home last Sunday with Grey Swallow, Weld will be going for his second straight American Oaks after Dimitrova's domination of last year's attractive field.

"This filly is not as good as Dimitrova," Weld said by phone Thursday morning, from a secure and undisclosed location somewhere in California. "Although, she ran very well in a Group 1, and she has given us some very good races.

"We have other fillies we might have sent for this race," Weld went on. "That said, Misty Heights appeared to be the kind of filly who could handle the long journey. Without that quality, it really doesn't matter how good they are - they won't be able to produce their best form. All indications are she traveled very well."

Seeing is believing, and Misty Heights cut a fabulous figure at Hollywood on Thursday morning, robust in flesh and at ease in her new surroundings. With assistant Tom Daley in the irons, the filly had a good tour of the main track and returned to the barn looking for more. Daley hopped off in midstride and walked Misty Heights into the shed row. She then emerged untacked for a tour of the ring and a nibble at some California clover.

"I know she will handle the firm ground, and she's done plenty of turning, so the course shouldn't bother her," Weld said. "It looks as if the race is pretty wide open, and she's a real fighter. So, even though she's no Dimitrova, that might not matter."