03/08/2007 12:00AM

Santa Margarita a leveler


ARCADIA, Calif. - It took this sports fan a long while to get over the Dodgers losing that three-game playoff to the despicable Giants at the end of the 1962 regular season. But I did. And it was weeks before I could show my face in public after watching Jumpin' Joe Kapp and my beloved Vikings stomped silly by the annoying Chiefs in the 1970 Super Bowl. Eventually, I coped.

And yet, even 31 years after the running of the 1976 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap, there has been no closure. To this day, the result remains inexplicable, the memory vivid, and the lessons bitterly learned. It was already clear that on any given day, any good horse can lose. But on that particular day, three of the very best mares who ever raced in California all went down in flames.

Based on the weights assigned in the race by Jimmy Kilroe and his accomplice, Lou Eilken, the '76 Santa Margarita could have just as easily been run in 1876. Clydesdales carry less.

Gay Style, age 6, carried 130 pounds after winning the Santa Monica under 125 and the Santa Maria under 127. Dulcia, who defeated Ancient Title, Royal Glint, and Forceten in the 1975 National Thoroughbred Championship, carried 128. And Tizna, winner of the Santa Margarita in 1974 and 1975, was asked to pack 127 as she tried to win an unprecedented third straight. At the time, it seemed a reasonable request.

All three had great flair and a loyal following. Based on irrefutable evidence, any one of them could have made the race their own. Why they all picked that particular day to go belly up is anybody's guess, but that is exactly what happened. Dulcia never mustered a run and was seventh. Gay Style made a little move before fading to sixth. Tizna, game as ever, managed to finish fourth, although she never looked remotely like she would win.

The failure of the Big Three dulled what turned out to be an exciting horse race among the lightweights. Fascinating Girl (115) and Fernando Toro beat Summertime Promise (114) and Darrel McHargue by a nose, with Charger's Star (114) and Sandy Hawley third, just a head behind the runner-up.

In one respect, the '76 Santa Margarita serves to condemn the idea of the handicap as the great parimutuel leveller. Three marquee topweights going in the tank is hardly good for business. At the same time, the shocking results of that bygone race serve to underline the occasional unpredictability of fillies and mares, especially in the warming springtime of the year, while encouraging all comers to take their best shot.

On paper, Saturday's 70th running of $300,000 Santa Margarita is being served up to Balance on a plate. The combination of class, form, and an accommodating weight (120) make her a formidable presence. Neither does it hurt that in five starts on the Santa Anita main track she has won four, with her lone loss coming in a sprint after an absence of nearly eight months.

Before they cut the check, though, Balance must deal with those nine furlongs and whatever the opposition can bring. Among the longshots will be Les Ry Leigh, third to Balance in the La Canada Stakes last time out and primed for what trainer Jim Cassidy thinks will be her best California effort.

But how would he know? The last time anyone checked, the Santa Margarita was run on the main track. As he has proven with such fillies and mares as Ticker Tape, Moscow Burning, Katdogawn, Singhalese, and just last weekend with Passified in the China Doll, Cassidy's success skews dramatically to the grass. In the interest of perspective, he was asked this week when he last won a dirt race.

"Oh, I don't know," Cassidy sighed. "It's been a few months."

Winning turf races like the American Oaks, the Del Mar Oaks and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup would keep anyone focused. Cassidy's clients and bloodstock contacts have emphasized grass horses, and he has complied.

Les Ry Leigh, on the other hand, came to Cassidy's California stable after winning 4 of 10 dirt starts in the East and Midwest for trainer Larry Jones, whose barn includes Kentucky Derby candidate Hard Spun. She is named for the children of co-owner Michael Pressley, who sold an interest in Les Ry Leigh to Robert Clay.

"She's a big strong filly," Cassidy noted. "No fault in conformation, really quiet, honest, and lovely to be around. She came to me wearing a little more equipment that I usually like. So I made a few adjustments - cut the blinkers way back and put a ring bit on her with a little bur on the inside. She goes as straight as a dime, but she's one of those horses who likes to hug the rail."

For the Santa Margarita, Les Ry Leigh got her wish and drew post 2, with Richie Migliore named to ride. From there, they'll have not only a great view of the rail, but also of Balance, who drew the inside post. What happens after that - at least based on the 1976 running of the race - is what makes the game go 'round.