02/06/2009 12:00AM

Rare fillies lift glass ceiling

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Of all the questions hanging over the season now beginning to unfold, none is more tantalizing than the idea of the Big Mare taking on the boys. Zenyatta is still weeks away from her first start as a 5-year-old, but already the imagination is running wild. (After all, racing fans cannot feed on 3-year-olds alone.) What if, goes the scenario, Zenyatta's people broke from the timid trends of American ownership and tossed their champion into a traditional main-track event both rich in history and deep in talented males? Would the earth move? Would the sky fall? Would the race even find a place on commercial TV?

If it happens, and Zenyatta comes through, the moment will be marked in time alongside the most memorable cross-gender adventures. Main-track American mares simply do not take that many shots against males, which is why the Whitney Handicaps of Personal Ensign and Lady's Secret and the Belmont of Rags to Riches remain so vivid, and why Azeri's attempt to win the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic sticks out as a gaudy exception to more conservative behaviors.

At this point a warning must be issued. Watch out for any sentence that begins "Fifty years ago," because a toxic dose of nostalgia is about to be released into the atmosphere. The last thing the game needs is to have its face rubbed in a big pile of fond memories, especially in these harsh times, and particularly when the circumstances of those memories can never be replicated. This one, though, is worth the trouble to remember.

Fifty years ago, on Valentine's Day, 1959, in the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita Park, a filly named Bug Brush beat a bunch of guys who never really knew what hit them. She set a world record for the 1 1/8 miles - the board read 1:46 2/5 when the dust cleared - and laid temporary waste to the reputations of the best horses the country had to offer at the time.

The depth of the 1959 San Antonio field was stunning, unseen today outside a Breeders' Cup event. This is not meant to disparage the quality of Sunday's renewal, which has attracted Tiago, Champs Elysees, and defending champ Well Armed. Their task is made easier, though, with the running of the Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds the day before, a common dilution designed to spread the wealth and heighten anticipation for the coming Santa Anita Handicap, where no one gets to hide.

A half-century ago, the best horses had only a few places to run, and they all had to show up. At nine furlongs, a race like the San Antonio was one of them. Besides, who in their right mind would pass up a chance to shoot for a piece of a purse worth $58,100? That would be about $400,000 today.

Hillsdale, the pride and joy of owner C.W. "Catfish" Smith, was favored because he had already won the Malibu, the San Carlos (beating Round Table), the San Fernando, and the Santa Anita Maturity (now the Strub) at the meet. Busy boy. Before he was through with 1959, he added the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Californian, the Los Angeles Handicap, the Argonaut, and the Aqueduct. Today they would build him a statue. Back then he was not even a champion.

The field also featured 6-year-old Terrang, winner in his youth of the 1956 Santa Anita Derby, the 1957 San Antonio, and seven other stakes. (He won the 1959 Santa Anita Handicap as well.) Jewel's Reward won the Champagne and the Wood Memorial. Seaneen already sported wins in the Californian and the San Carlos. Eddie Schmidt had won the Gallant Fox and the Nassau County back East and seven stakes in the West. Fleet Nasrullah and The Searcher were major sprint stakes winners who could carry their speed. Whodunit went on to win the Sunset. And then there was the Llangollen Farm entry of Royal Living, who won the San Juan Capistrano later that same meet, and Nashville, Bug Brush's full brother, who was as fast as you wanted him to be.

Mind you, no one felt sorry for the rangy, blaze-faced Bug Brush. She won the 1958 Kentucky Oaks for C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, who bought her from Belair Stud. As a young 4-year-old, Bug Brush already had won the Las Flores, the Santa Monica, and the Santa Margarita. Her trainer, Robert Wheeler, was convinced she was ready to run the race of her life. Whitney, who died in 1992, was skeptical.

"Sonny really didn't like running a filly against the males," said Marylou Whitney, a bride of barely a year at the time. "But she wasn't that feminine-looking, and she ran like the boys, full of fire. Sonny and I would come out early at Santa Anita and ride the ponies while Bob Wheeler trained. In the morning, Bug Brush was wonderful. She could look another horse in the eye and go right on by."

Those instincts were fully tested when Angel Valenzuela put Bug Brush on Hillsdale's flank with a half-mile to run. The filly edged in front on the turn, but the colt would not let go. At the line it was Bug Brush by three-quarters over Hillsdale, with Terrang five lengths back in third.

"It was the most exciting race I've ever seen," said Whitney, who has won a Belmont, a Travers and a Kentucky Oaks in her own right. "Bug Brush broke the record, and I was so excited I fainted. Sonny was rushing on down and didn't know what I was doing, so Mervyn LeRoy - you remember him? - he picked me up off the floor of the box. I was all right by the time Sonny got back, but I didn't get to see him get the cup."

The following morning, as the legend goes, C.W. Smith made his way to the Wheeler barn on the Santa Anita backstretch. His horse had just run the race of his life . . . and lost.

"I want to get a look at the mare who beat Hillsdale," Smith said, and Wheeler obliged. Like Zenyatta, Bug Brush was a sight to behold.