09/28/2006 11:00PM

Two hard-trying ladies meet again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Don't be surprised if Sunday's $250,000 Lady's Secret Handicap comes down to a couple of battle-tested 5-year-old mares trained by two guys named John.

Between them, Healthy Addiction and Hollywood Story have won the division's headline event at each of the three major Southern California meets this year. In the Santa Margarita Handicap last March, Healthy Addiction led all the way to defeat Dream of Summer. In the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, Hollywood Story came from far back to catch Healthy Addiction with a furlong to run, but it was tooth and nail to the wire. Then, in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar, Healthy Addiction bounced back to upset Eastern hotshot Happy Ticket, while Hollywood Story finished a disappointing fourth.

Healthy Addiction is also the defending Lady's Secret champ, winning last year's running of the 1 1/16-mile main track event by a half-length over Star Parade. Hollywood Story came flying late that day but could manage only fourth.

As members of the 2001 foal crop, Healthy Addiction and Hollywood Story share such contemporaries as Halfbridled, Ashado, Storm Flag Flying, A.P. Adventure, Silent Sighs, Victory U. S. A., Tarlow, and Madcap Escapade. Those others are long gone, off to improve the breed, while Hollywood Story and Healthy Addiction soldier on.

John Shirreffs, who trains Hollywood Story for George Krikorian, looks at her career record with nothing short of amazement. After finishing second in a maiden event on Aug. 3, 2003, at Del Mar (won by Victory U. S. A.), Hollywood Story has competed in 24 consecutive graded stakes, 15 of them rated Grade 1.

"You would think she might get a little discouraged, especially after running in such tough races so early in her career," Shirreffs said. "But she never does. She just keeps coming back for more."

Hollywood Story, a daughter of Wild Rush, is a brawny mare with a rich brown coat and glamorous splashes of white. She has won only four times, but her $1,141,105 bankroll reflects the lofty company she has kept.

Healthy Addiction, by Boston Harbor, comes in a relatively plain dark bay wrapper and is built with more elegance in mind. Slower to unfold, she now has won 9 of 21 starts and just under $900,000.

"When she was young, you could almost consider her waifish," said John Sadler, who trains Healthy Addiction for Pamela Ziebarth. "She had a lot of try, though, and everything was in the right place. It was just a matter of letting her develop."

It is no accident that Healthy Addiction and Hollywood Story have made the most of their innate abilities. Both Shirreffs and Sadler have enviable records at the top of the California filly-mare division, including victories in two of the last three Vanity Handicaps and three of the last four Santa Margaritas.

Sadler's work with such top females as Track Gal, Victory Encounter, and Belleski goes as far back as 1986, when he was just shy of his 30th birthday and training a gray flash by the name of Melair.

"She was a true freak," Sadler said, and no one should argue, since she ran the fastest one-turn mile ever for a 3-year-old filly and defeated Preakness winner Snow Chief. "I always described her as deer-like, just bounding along, never getting tired.

"If the good mares have anything in common, it's that they show something very early," Sadler noted. "You don't really have to ask them for it. Sometimes, like in the case of Healthy Addiction, you have to be patient until they are ready physically to handle their natural ability."

Shirreffs has trained such major female stakes winners as Starrer, Tarlow, Radu Cool, Borodislew, and the near champion Manistique, winner of the Santa Margarita, the Vanity, and the Lady's Secret in 1999.

"It seems like every one of those mares had one very good trait and built on it," Shirreffs observed. "Manistique had that huge stride. She just overwhelmed other horses. Tarlow had exceptional speed, and then learned to channel that speed as she got older."

In the case of Hollywood Story, Shirreffs points to her relentless determination, although she has made at least one concession to age.

"She really doesn't like to run on the inside anymore, getting all that dirt in her face," Shirreffs said. "That's what happened to her in the race at Del Mar. It's kind of like an older boxer who just gets tired of all those jabs and finds a way around them."

Dropping back, of course, leaves Hollywood Story deeply vulnerable to a quick mare like Healthy Addiction.

"The fact that she has always had a 'California' style of running has been a great advantage," Sadler said of Healthy Addiction. "She gets into her races sooner, where a mare like Hollywood Story needs some things to happen that are outside her control."

Looking past the Lady's Secret, neither Healthy Addiction (0-for-2) nor Hollywood Story (0-for-4) have done any damage outside Southern California. Great shippers they're not. But neither mare has tried Churchill Downs, the site of this year's Breeders' Cup Distaff, which might be reason enough to give them one more chance as two admirable careers draw to an end.