08/31/2005 12:00AM

She's all grown up now

Benoit & Associates
Charm the Giant, a daughter of Giant's Causeway, has started her career with three wins in four starts.

DEL MAR, Calif. - It was just a routine little allowance race, with an optional set of claiming conditions, run on a mild and breezy Monday afternoon at Del Mar.

The crowd numbered around 8,400, which is about as low as it goes at Del Mar, especially on a day that leaned heavily toward the beach, the links, or the hammock on the condo porch. Those in attendance, however, were handed a treat, wrapped in a sleek bay package and delivered in 1:32.86 - the fastest turf mile among fillies and mares at the nearly completed meet.

Charm the Giant, a dutifully named daughter of Giant's Causeway and Olympic Charmer, beat Domaine, a top mare from Chile, by two lengths. Students of pace will point to the mid-race split of 44.05 seconds as a contributing factor to the final time - Alex Solis kept Charm the Giant well behind the breakneck fractions. Still, a good horse will always run as fast as it takes to win, and it looks as if Charm the Giant might be a very good horse.

To think, we knew her when. Three years ago last April, on a trip to the racing shrines of Ireland, my wife and I were given a tour of Coolmore Farm, the General Motors of the breeding game. We were under explicit orders from Debbie McAnally, wife of Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, to look in on her newborn foal, housed somewhere in the vast Coolmore complex.

Sounds simple enough, and it was, thanks to Irish hospitality and a rough familiarity with the language. Ah, but before we could make our appointment with the McAnally filly, there was a raft of cultural hurdles to jump. They included left-hand driving on narrow countryside roads lined with unforgiving ancient stone walls, left-hand parking on narrow cobblestone streets dating back to the Battle of Bannockburn, and left-hand emergency steering when the odd sheep wandered onto one of those narrow countryside roads.

There was also the matter of Guinness stout, God's own brew, which required several pints at McCarthy's Bar in Fethard to build up a reasonable tolerance, while maintaining the good sense to find a designated left-hand driver.

The town of Fethard, located in the middle of County Tipperary, dates back to the early 13th century, when a Norman nobleman was installed by England's King John to build a planned community. To the modern Thoroughbred world, however, Fethard is nothing less than the gateway to Coolmore, home to such stallions as Sadler's Wells, Galileo, High Chaparral, Montjeu, and Rock of Gibraltar.

After the social preliminaries of a thorough lunch, followed by a formal display of Coolmore stallions (Danehill was still alive at the time), we were driven over hill and dale to one of the several barns dedicated exclusively to mares and their newborn offspring. One of the Coolmore handlers was ready and waiting with Olympic Charmer and her filly, born barely a month before.

"Be careful," warned my wife. "There's nothing more unpredictable than a foal."

In fact, the filly was a perfect lady, wide-eyed and posing, as if she expected company all along. Covered in tan pinfeathers, she sported a fat, tapering blaze that occupied most of her little forehead and four of the most delicate black hooves you'd ever want to see.

The idea that this little package would grow up to crack 1:33 for a mile was ridiculous. But she did. She shed her baby fuzz and fleshed out into a pleasing combination of her nifty grandsire, Olympio, her inspiring specimen of a sire, Giant's Causeway, and her stakes-winning dam.

So far, a lot has gone right for Charm the Giant. The McAnallys were able to get Olympic Charmer to Giant's Causeway in his first season at stud in 2001, while standing in Ireland, and then kept her there to foal, thus avoiding the mare reproductive loss syndrome that swept Kentucky that same year. Charm the Giant was born on the evening of March 8, 2002.

"She came within two hours and 21 minutes of being foaled March 9, which is John Henry's birthday," said Debbie McAnally. "I thought, 'Wow, maybe this is some kind of message.' "

Before Charm the Giant came along, John Henry, a two-time Horse of the Year, was the most famous horse ever trained by Ron McAnally. Now, who knows?

"Whatever the future brings, there is nothing to compare with the excitement of breeding a filly like this one," Debbie McAnally said. "They become part of your family."

In the wake of Monday's race, the owner of Charm the Giant awoke with the trainer of Charm the Giant early Wednesday morning and asked, with some hesitation, if he had any idea when the filly might run again. You know how these old-time trainers like to run through conditions and keep their cards close.

"I don't know," McAnally said.

The owner took the answer in stride. After all, the filly was 3 for 4 and getting better with each start.

"Is there a chance she might run at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree meet?" she wondered.

"Yes," came the answer. It was music to her ears.