06/30/2010 11:00PM

Scrappy bunch in downsized Oaks

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was fun while it lasted, the American Oaks, a race of great style and imagination that not only filled a hole in the stakes spectrum but also created a rich, self-contained lore that, sad to say, has lapsed too quickly into nostalgia.

It seems like only yesterday - okay, it was 2002 - that Dublino and Megahertz threw down in the first running of the Oaks in a race of such emotional depth and competitive breadth that it is difficult to remember who one won and who was disqualified. For the record, Dublino hit the line half a length in front but was demoted for bumping Megahertz and for Dublino's rider, Kent Desormeaux, accidentally striking Megahertz with the whip.

Top that. And the Oaks did, first in 2003 with the victory of the Irish filly Dimitrova and then emphatically in 2005, when the Japanese filly Cesario descended upon Los Angeles to win the race in a manner befitting only the most gifted animals. The following season, Wait a While made an Oaks victory one of the key elements in her championship season, which marked the first time a filly whose major achievements came on grass was named best of her generation. Her victory also ignited a run of four straight East Coast-based winners that most recently included the accomplished Gozzip Girl in 2009.

Through a combination of sponsorship, promotions, incentives, and good old-fashioned working of the phones by the staff of Hollywood Park racing secretary Martin Panza, the American Oaks became a race of which the California sport could be proud. There was always the nagging reality that the owners of Hollywood Park, Stockbridge Investments, would someday be shutting down the track - as it did Hollywood's sister property at Bay Meadows - and take with it such flagship events as the American Oaks. But, went the thinking, until that day came, the Oaks would fly high.

It didn't happen. The ninth running Saturday will be the American Oaks in name only. The purse of 2009 was slashed by half, to $250,000, and the farthest any of the competitors will travel to contest the 10-furlong event is the 25 or so miles across town from Santa Anita Park.

In theory, this should make the Grade 1 event easier to win. But don't tell that to the scrappy bunch of fillies who have been at each other's throats this season on the Southern California grass.

They began their quarrelsome ways at Santa Anita in the Providencia Stakes, when City to City, a daughter of City Zip, defeated Andina, Antares World, and Cozi Rosie in a fast 1 1/8 miles. In the subsequent Senorita, over a mile at Hollywood, Cozi Rosie handled Andina and City to City, but not by much. Then, in the nine-furlong Honeymoon, Cozi Rosie, City to City, and Andina were not the least bit intimidated by division powerhouse Evening Jewel, who escaped with a narrow win.

Neither Evening Jewel nor Blind Luck, the California-based winner of the Kentucky Oaks, will try the American Oaks. That leaves Antares World, City to City, Cozie Rosie, and Andina to take on newcomers fresh from the allowance ranks.

It is safe to say that none of the eight entered in the Oaks has ever seen the angry side of 10 furlongs. The supplemented Riviera Chic did win going 1 3/16 miles on synthetic ground at Wolverhampton in England last February, clocked in around 2:03. But it's hard to know what that proves, other than the fact she can pay attention for the time it will take to deal with the longer Oaks.

On pedigree, Michael Tabor's Conniption shows Danehill Dancer on top and Sadler's Wells on the bottom, which should be good enough to run to LAX and back. Andina mixes all-around champion Singspiel - still the only horse to win both the Dubai World Cup and Japan Cup - with a daughter of Rahy. Cozie Rosie gets both stamina and class from her sire, Pleasantly Perfect, and her damn, Felidia, a daughter of Epsom Derby winner Golden Fleece. Antares World boasts the blood of the robust milers Decarchy and Spinning World,

"Don't really know about the mile and a quarter until we try it," said Steve Specht, who trains Antares World at Golden Gate for her breeders, Larry and Marianne Williams. "I'm just hoping she gets a chance to run the race she wants to run."

Antares World is queen of all she surveys in Northern California, where she has won three stakes around two turns, including the Golden Poppy in April. Down south, though, she failed to hit the board in either the Providencia on the grass or the Hollywood Oaks on synthetic.

"She's not the kind of filly who needs to carry her track with her," Specht said. "But she does have the kind of natural speed that you want to just let her get away from there and get comfortable."

Last time, in the Hollywood Oaks, she was clearly uncomfortable. Antares World found herself asked to close into a three-quarter-mile split of 1:14 and change, something not even Blind Luck could pull off. Earlier, in the Providencia, the filly was shuffled back after breaking well, then came running late to no avail.

After using local veteran Victor Espinoza in the Hollywood Oaks, Specht has gone back to her regular companion, Frank Alvarado, for the American Oaks.

"I don't like to tell a rider things like, 'Don't be no closer than third,' or 'Never be farther than a length off it,' " Specht said. "Because you never know what's going to happen when the gate opens, and a rider is supposed to be smart enough to know how fast they're going. Frank knows her. He's got confidence in her.

"Considering the circumstances of her other two races down here, I think she deserves another shot," Specht said. "Anyway, I'm gonna keep beating my head against the wall while I still feel I've got a horse good enough to compete with those fillies in there on Saturday."