03/07/2003 1:00AM

Racemare of the century

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NEW YORK - Woody Stephens and D. Wayne Lukas dominated American racing during the 1980's, training numerous champions and frequently clashing at the highest level of the sport. It took a crowbar to get either of them to say something nice about a horse trained by the other, but after watching Lady's Secret win the 1986 Ruffian at Belmont by eight lengths while spotting 20 pounds to the runner-up, Woody couldn't help himself.

"That's the best filly I've ever seen," he said, and he had seen most of the great ones.

Lady's Secret, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 21, was a champion among champions. She retired in 1987 as the first filly or mare to earn $3 million, after winning 25 of 45 starts over four seasons, 22 of them stakes races, 11 of those Grade 1's. She was the Horse of the Year in 1986, the last filly so honored until Azeri last year.

Lady's Secret was beloved for reasons beyond her speed and her achievements. She was a striking gray, and she was a daughter of Secretariat, who was widely considered a massive disappointment at stud until she came along. Only later did Secretariat emerge as a brilliant broodmare sire, responsible for both Storm Cat and A.P. Indy, the world's leading sires today.

In Secretariat's early years at stud, he was bred mostly to blue-blooded and long-winded mares, producing first-generation racehorses who lacked speed and agility. Lukas arranged Lady's Secret's mating with a different theory in mind.

"The mistake everyone was making was breeding those classic distance mares to a classic distance horse like that," Lukas said.

He and his partner Robert Spreen went the other way. Lady's Secret was the product of Secretariat and an Icecapade mare named Great Lady M., a pure sprinter who won over $300,000 in California dashes for Lukas and Spreen. Lady's Secret was foaled at Lukas's Oklahoma ranch, and the breeders sold a majority interest to Lukas's main client, Eugene V. Klein.

At 2 and as an early 3-year-old, Lady's Secret seemed destined to take after only her dam, losing 8 of her first 12 starts and repeatedly failing when asked to go beyond six furlongs. Then the Secretariat genes seemed to kick in. She began to rate in sprints and won three stakes in a row before arriving at Saratoga in August of 1985 for the Test Stakes. Mom's Command, fresh from a sweep of the New York filly triple crown, was the 1-2 favorite, but it was Lady's Secret who rallied from fourth to score a two-length victory and pay a tasty $22.20.

She was just getting started. Victories in the Ballerina, Maskette, Ruffian, and Beldame followed and she finished the season running second to her stablemate Life's Magic in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, then contested at 1 1/4 miles. Just seven weeks later, she began another streak in California, winning the El Encino, La Canada, and Santa Margarita.

She had run out of competition against her own kind, so Lukas ran her four times against males in the toughest spots around. Finishing second in the Woodward (to Precisionist) and third in the Iselin and Met Mile only underscored her quality, and her victory in the Whitney gave her Horse of the Year credentials. The only thing she hadn't done was win at 1 1/4 miles, so she closed out her campaign by doing it twice, in the Beldame and then the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

She was not the same horse at 5, winning just two allowance races in five starts, and her career ended on a bizarre note. Sent off at 3-10 in the first race at Saratoga on a rainy afternoon, she bolted on the first turn, apparently looking for a way back to the barn. Lukas never found anything wrong with her, but she had soured on racing and was retired. Valued at over $5 million as a broodmare, she never produced a significant racehorse and sold for just $750,000 four years ago. From all accounts, she enjoyed a placid life off the racetrack and was a docile horse who happily ate mints offered by visitors.

Looking back over a half-century of champion mares, it is impossible to find a better one. Woody thought Gallorette in 1945-46 had been the best until Lady's Secret came along, and for all their brilliance neither Ruffian nor Personal Ensign accomplished quite as much. The greatest colt of the 20th century may well have sired the century's best racemare after all.