02/20/2004 1:00AM

She's more victorious than notorious


ARCADIA, Calif. - Emma Bovary, the 19th century literary character, was a scandalous woman with a rapacious appetite for the trappings of wealth, a serial adulteress, and a chronic spendthrift who drove her husband to near ruin, then ended her life with a sloppy, agonizing suicide. What a gal.

Of course, by today's standards Madame Bovary would be no more than a bit player on "O.C." or a wacky neighbor of "The Osbournes." The Europe of the mid-1800's was slightly less tolerant, however, and her creator, author Gustave Flaubert, had to defend his controversial heroine in public court.

Hollywood's 1949 version of "Madame Bovary" was directed by Vincent Minnelli, with Jennifer Jones in the title role. Ads for the splashy costume drama tantalized movie fans with the suggestion: "Whatever it is that French women have, Madame Bovary has more of it."

So far, a similar claim can be made about racing's version of the tempestuous Madame B. Ema Bovary - an "m" was dropped in translation - is a 5-year-old mare from Chile who is every bit as headstrong and opinionated as her fictional namesake. And whatever she has, bottle it quick.

Ema Bovary is owned by Seattle attorney Rick Beal and legal assistant Lana Ramsey-Brog, who were not quite sure what they had a year ago when their mare made a pouty U.S. debut at Golden Gate Fields. For some reason, Ema was horribly offended by the starting gate and refused leave with the pack.

Since then, Ema Bovary has been a model of decorum and consistency: seven starts, seven wins, and only one of them required an asterisk, when Royally Chosen beat her a nose in the Kalookan Queen Handicap at Santa Anita and was disqualified for interference. Now Ema Bovary is back in Southern California, from her San Francisco base, ready to meet Buffythecenterfold on Sunday in the $100,000 Las Flores Handicap.

The timing is right. The West's top female sprinters are in disarray right now, just waiting for a leader to emerge. Island Fashion swept both the seven-furlong La Brea and Santa Monica with breathtaking ease, but her ambitions lie elsewhere. Eastern-based Mooji Moo dusted the best California (and Florida) could offer in the Sunshine Millions, and one of them was Santa Anita-based Bear Fan, who left town to win last weekend's Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel Park.

Ema Bovary beat Bear Fan by three-quarters of a length last November in an allowance race at Hollywood Park. Trainer Larry Ross, playing the role of Flaubert, remembers the day well.

"I'm not saying we couldn't beat her again," Ross said of the speedy Bear Fan. "But in all reality, we probably caught Bear Fan at a pretty good time, with her coming off a layoff and all."

Rather than keying on the Bear Fan race, Ross recommends a long look at Ema Bovary's two-length victory in the Orinda Handicap at Golden Gate on Jan. 24, while carrying 123 pounds.

"The key to success for her is a move so fast that nobody can really catch up with it," Ross said. "In her last race she was in trouble all the way around, then that little hole opened and she was through it before they knew what happened. After that, the race was over."

Ema Bovary said farewell to her native Chile with a victory in July 2002. She won two other races back home, but resplendent amidst those South American lines is a solid second going seven furlongs against a filly named Wild Spirit - the same Wild Spirit who won the 2003 Ruffian Stakes at Belmont Park.

After her first American race hiccup, Ema Bovary came right back to win the 2003 Soviet Problem Handicap at Golden Gate, then two stakes at Emerald Downs. Ross then gave her the summer off, which she spent at the Ross family farm southeast of Seattle, near the banks of the Green River.

"She's a funny horse," Ross noted. "She can be really sweet to be around, but she's the kind you don't go into her stall without holding her head. On a given day she might kick your head off, not out of any hostility, but if she wants to be bothered, she'll let you catch her. It generally takes a guy a half hour to get her halter on her for feed time."

Like the Emma of old, Ema Bovary occasionally can be bribed into temporary distraction. Carrots worked for a while. Bananas can make her drop her guard. More recently, the temptation of choice has been oranges.

"She's developed quite a taste for them," Ross said.

And she can have them by the bagful, for all the pleasure she has brought to Ross and his wife, Sharon, who shares the training duties.

"We all got way more than what we thought we were getting," Ross said. "Basically, we were hoping for a nice little stakes horse for Seattle. Now she'd kind of run herself out of Seattle, and run herself out of Golden Gate."

Only this time, "Madame" Bovary is on the run for all the right reasons.

"You know," Ross added, "I might have to read that book."