01/13/2006 1:00AM

On the surface, it's a pretty big deal

Benoit & Associates
Stakes-winning turf filly Three Degrees will try to win Sunday's El Encino on the main track.

ARCADIA, Calif. - When the invitations for the 1982 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park were issued, Aaron Jones was aghast when he discovered that Lemhi Gold, his homebred pride and joy, was left off the list for the $400,000, all-star event.

"I called their racing office to find out what was going on," Jones recalled at the time. "They told me that my horse wasn't invited because he was a grass horse, and the race was on the dirt."

To be fair, Lemhi Gold's record at that point did lean toward turf. His most significant victories of 1982 had come in the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita and the Sword Dancer at Belmont. He was a close second in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga the year before at age 3, but his most visible 1982 main-track race had come in the Whitney, also at Saratoga, in which he broke like a hurdler and could do no better than fifth.

"You had to just throw that race out," Jones said. "I had no doubt he was as good on the dirt as he was on the turf, and I was anxious to run in the Marlboro to prove it. I told the racing secretary that maybe he should let me decide what kind of horse I had."

Thus advised, the Belmont brain trust issued a provisional invitation to Lemhi Gold, plugging him in at the bottom of the handicap at 115 pounds. Let the record show that Lemhi Gold ran off and hid from the rest of his Marlboro field, winning by 8 3/4 lengths, then did pretty much the same number on the Jockey Club Gold Cup three weeks later, winning by 4 1/2.

Lemhi Gold was not alone. The late 1970's and early 1980's marked a gilded age of older horses - both male and female - who could shift back and forth between major dirt and grass races while maintaining world-class form.

In many cases they defied the conventional stereotypes of breeding, running style, and even hoof shape and size, normally employed as excuses to keep runners in their divisional ghettos. What the turf/dirt monsters of that era had in common was a hard-nosed competitive streak coupled with consummate class, and people in their corner who were willing to bend convention. Their patron saint was Round Table, the three-time grass champion of the late 1950's, who, when bored, went slumming on the main track to win such events as the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Gulfstream Park Handicap.

Besides Lemhi Gold, anyone's list of all-around players from the era also would need to include:

* John Henry, with four turf titles to go along with his Jockey Club Gold Cup and two Santa Anita Handicaps on dirt.

* Perrault, who in 1982 ran sub two-minute mile and a quarters in the Hollywood Gold Cup on dirt and Budweiser Million on turf.

* Exceller, the winner of six Grade 1 races in 1978, two on dirt, four on turf.

* Waya, the thoroughly Americanized French mare who won three major New York races on dirt in 1979 to go along with an enviable grass portfolio.

On Sunday at Santa Anita, in the $150,000 El Encino Stakes, the gray turf filly Three Degrees will put a toe in the main-track waters to find out if she belongs.

"You never know if it will work or not until you do it," said her trainer, Paddy Gallagher. "We were ready to try her on dirt in the [Dec. 31] La Brea, being a Grade 1, but I didn't want to take a chance on the wet track."

Three Degrees has started nine times, all on grass, with a victory in the Honeymoon Handicap and close seconds in the Del Mar Oaks and Senorita Stakes to show for it. In her most recent race she was as good a fifth as a horse could be, beaten just three-quarters of a length in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland. That was three months ago.

"They were going so slow early that they got away from her a little at the head of the stretch," Gallagher noted. "But then she re-rallied. All of those first five ran big that day."

If Three Degrees should win the El Encino, a whole world of stakes opportunities will suddenly appear, and she must be considered in a bright new light, since she will be joining a handful of recent, notable runners who have won top prizes on both turf and dirt. Among them are Castledale, Favorite Trick, Da Hoss, and Affluent, who added the 2002 John C. Mabee Handicap on the Del Mar grass to her earlier win in the El Encino.

It has been the Europeans, however, who lately have played the turf/dirt game at the highest levels, especially with Giant's Causeway and Sakhee, Euro-stars who came within Tiznow's neck and nose of winning the 2000 and 2001 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Still, none of them quite rose to the level of Lemhi Gold, Perrault, and company. For a better comparison, it is necessary to go back to late 1996 and early 1997, when there was a horse good enough to win the world's richest grass race, the Japan Cup, and then the world's richest dirt race, the Dubai World Cup, in consecutive appearances. His name was Singspiel, also known as the sire of Three Degrees.