01/06/2006 12:00AM

Ticker Tape a contender to throne

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Okay, ladies, it's safe to come out and play. That mean, old Megahertz is gone, off to terrorize some stud in the breeding shed, which means the rich schedule of filly and mare grass racing in Southern California is once again up for grabs.

During a normal year (i.e., a year with a Hollywood Park turf course), there are eight major races for the division ranging from a mile to 1 1/4 miles. At one time or another, during her 45-month American career, Megahertz won six of them, including three Santa Barbaras, two Santa Anas, a Yellow Ribbon, a Beverly Hills, a John C. Mabee and a San Gorgonio. (There was also the American Oaks and Honeymoon Handicap when Megahertz was 3, but she was just warming up.)

Stir in another six times Megahertz was a close second or third in those races, and it is easy to understand why no other West Coast turf mare was able to gain any significant traction. By the end of the line, Megahertz had become one of the most popular California-based mares in recent times, with a following every bit as loyal as the fans of Azeri, Bayakoa, or Flawlessly.

"I miss her, absolutely," said owner Michael Bello. "She's already settled in at Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington, and she'll be bred to Giant's Causeway. I thought she deserved the best stallion we could get."

In the meantime, the Megahertz division resumes play on Sunday at Santa Anita with the $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap, and there are a few familiar faces. Chief among them is Ticker Tape, the English mare who ranked as one of the top 3-year-olds on North American turf in 2004 when she won the American Oaks and Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup.

The San Gorgonio, at nine furlongs on what figures to be firm turf, gives Ticker Tape a chance to erase the bitter taste of 2005, when she went 0 for 7 under the colors of her new owners, James and Gail Peyton of Forging Oaks Farm near Lexington.

"It just might have been a case of the 4-year-old blues," said trainer Jim Cassidy, who engineered Ticker Tape's successful migration to California in late 2003. "That can happen, when a horse is so good at 3, the next year they can catch up to her. But there have been a lot of them turn the program around when they turn 5, and that's what I'm looking for with her."

The Peytons, understandably, were anxious to see their filly perform for a Kentucky audience. Ticker Tape tried twice last year, but she was a short horse for the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs in May, finishing seventh of seven. Then, in the WinStar Galaxy Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 9, she beat one horse.

"She was never training better than she was for that race," Cassidy said. "Then three days before the race back there she tied up on me."

Known clinically as exercise induced rhabdomyolysis, the condition can result from any number of factors, including stress of travel, excessive nervousness, or high body temperatures. Essentially, the muscles lose their ability to flush out lactic acid, causing the cells to lose function.

"When muscle cells shut down, they don't do so in the relaxed position," notes large animal veterinarian Susan Evans Garlinghouse on her website. "They freeze up in the contracted position, which is why you get those rock-hard muscles. Biochemically, it's not all that different from rigor mortis."

Cassidy was faced with a quandary.

"Normally, she would be given something like Dantrium, to knock down the calcium buildup in her system," Cassidy said. "But Kentucky was going through their medication rule changes at the time, so I couldn't really train her on any medication. We just had to keep her hooked up to fluids for two days to get all the poison out of her system."

By race day, Ticker Tape was deemed recovered enough to run, but Cassidy was realistic about her chances, and Kent Desormeaux brought her back safe and sound. Upon returning to California, Cassidy regrouped and pointed for the Matriarch Stakes in late November. That small explosion heard sometime around Nov. 1 was the sound of Cassidy's stack blowing sky high upon hearing that the Hollywood Park turf course was unplayable.

"I told them to strip the bad turf off there, roll that sonofagun and paint it green," recalled Cassidy, now able to see the dark humor. "It would be no different than it was last year."

Plan B took Ticker Tape to Calder for the $100,000 My Charmer Handicap on Dec. 3. Under Jose Valdivia, she put in a steady run to be head and head for the lead in the stretch, but then tired slightly to finish third, beaten a length. For the San Gorgonio, she will be reunited with Desormeaux, her most successful partner, who was encouraged enough after a recent breeze to give Cassidy a hard time and a compliment in the same breath.

"He got off her, big smile, and says, 'How did you ever get her beat?' " Cassidy said with a laugh. "You know me and Kent - if we're not giving each other a hard time we're not talking."

By late Sunday afternoon, they might be celebrating.